There didn’t appear to be a lot of agreement Tuesday evening as the Reno County Commission took a first look at proposed wind energy regulations forwarded to it by the county’s planning board – starting with how to proceed in reviewing them.
County Commission Chairman Ron Hirst proposed that the board walk through the 14-page document a paragraph at a time and discuss proposed changes – of which he offered several.
Commissioner Ron Sellers indicated he wanted to familiarize himself with the proposal and learn why the planning commission made specific recommendations, but he wasn’t prepared to discuss any changes.
Commissioner Daniel Friesen suggested near the conclusion of the meeting that perhaps the county should stick with its current regulations – which encompass less than a page – and negotiate restrictions for each project with future developers.
By the end of the 2½ hour meeting, the one thing the commissioners did agree on was praise for the work of the planning commission.
But the meeting adjourned without a clear timeline for renewing the debate.
The Reno County Planning Commission approved its draft a month ago, after working on it for six months.
Key elements of that proposal include minimum setbacks for turbines from a home of 2,000 feet or four times the height of the turbine, maximum allowable shadow flicker of 30 hours a year, and maximum sound levels of 45 decibels an hour.
“We’re here as a commission to look after the health, safety, and welfare of our citizens,” Hirst said in initiating the discussion. “It isn’t just about money, it’s about health, safety and welfare.”
He then proposed increasing minimum setbacks to 2,500 feet or five-times the height of a turbine, whichever is greater, from property lines.
“The reason I say that is there can be waivers involved in that,” he said. “Any landowner can negotiate to waive a setback requirement.”
County Counselor Joe O’Sullivan questioned whether it was the right time to discuss changes, rather than just review the proposal, but Friesen said he was “all for digging in and establishing positions,” though he didn’t expect to finalize the rules.
The discussion then turned, however, into a more debate about the process, including whether the commission must first accept the document at a public meeting before revising it. Or, if it didn’t want to adopt the proposal as presented by the planning board, did the commission have to either reject it or send it back for revision with direction, or could it just amend it.
Hirt attempted to move the discussion back to specifics, asking whether the proposed regulations addressed ice throw and blade disintegration. He proposed the minimum setback from roadways be increased from 500 feet in the draft to 500 meters or at least 1,642 feet, based on turbine manufacturer recommendations for those issues.
Commissioner Ron Sellers again questioned the intent of the meeting.
“I thought the purpose of this meeting was for planning staff and department heads to review with us the document planning staff presented so we could understand why the planning commission made changes to items in the original CUP,” he said. “I guess I didn’t come today prepared to debate if that number is 1,000 feet, 2000 feet, or a mile. I thought we were going to hear the reasoning behind the document presented to us.”
County Administrator Randy Partington agreed the purpose was to review the document and explain the planning board’s decisions so the commissioners had that background.
Sellers then agreed, however, to listen to other commissioner’s preferences, while noting again he wasn’t prepared to debate them.
Among other suggestions from Hirst was that a 5- to 7-mile buffer be included around the Quivira Wildlife Refuge and that the wind regulations be made countywide through an overlay zone, rather than just applied in currently zoned areas of the county.
He also questioned why the planning commission increased noise and shadow flicker limits from ones that the board had approved in earlier drafts.
County Planner Mark Vonachen explained the majority of the planning board thought the original proposals were too restrictive, agreeing on split votes to increase noise from 30 decibels to 45 and shadow flick from 20 minutes a day and 20 hours a year to a flat 30 hours a year.
Hirst suggested different sound limits for day and night, with a lower level at night, though if they adopted a 2,500 feet minimum setback and a requirement for trailing edge noise reduction turbines, he said, it wouldn’t be an issue.
Friesen called Hirst’s proposals “a poison pill.”
Hirst asked about several other items that the proposed regulation lists as potentially being in a developer’s agreement, such as language about decommissioning, addressing hazardous materials, fire safety and the sale of a developed project, which he felt should be more detailed.
“I think many of your comments are very appropriate,” Sellers said.
“Some things Mr. Hirst said I don’t agree with and want to think about, such as distance and numbers and so forth,” Sellers said. “But I agree he’s right that the wording needs to be as accurate as we can get it. We want potential developers to look at our regulations and say ‘this is what these people are going to expect.’”
One or many
Friesen then suggested considering keeping the county’s current regulations and just using a negotiated agreement to set restrictions.
“My one worry is we’re in a cyclical pattern,” he said. “If we fast forward to the end of this, are we back with another CUP that potentially gets petitioned against (by residents who are opposed) and needs a 3-0 decision by us to get it overridden?”
“I think it’s worth a conversation by this commission whether we continue to do a significant amount of work by staff and the planning commission and us and end up in the same situation,” Friesen said. “…We all know what this is for. This is for an application in southeast Reno County. I just don’t want all this work to be for naught.”
“We can’t predict what a group of landowners might or might not do,” Sellers said. “We need to produce the best document we feel the county can live with… If we end up with the same process in this given area, so be it. At least it’s a document for the rest of the county the three of us think is workable.”
Hirst noted there are other areas of the county a development could go in. He said he went township by township looking at houses on township maps.
“There are 844 sections that can meet the 2,500 feet from a house and can meet the 1,642 feet from a roadway,” he said. “There’s going to have to be waivers involved… but that’s an awful lot of sections you can put a wind farm on.”
“There is ample room in Reno County for a wind farm under the regulations we can come up with.”
Sellers asked that before the commission goes further, he be given time to think about the discussion.
“It’s taken 2 ½ years,” he said. “Another two weeks or two months is not going to make a difference. I didn’t come prepared to vote on 1,500 or 2,000 or 2,500. I want time to think about what’s appropriate in my mind.”