Several dozen predominantly southern Lancaster County residents called on county commissioners Thursday to leave the rules governing wind turbines alone as the board weighs loosening regulations amid a renewable energy push.
During a nearly five-hour public hearing, opponents of wind farm development in the county told board members that Lancaster County could support renewable energy without risking disruptions for rural families.
“No matter how hard you pound the round peg, it is not going to fit in the square hole,” Jack Thompson told the County Board.
Proponents of renewable energy development said Lancaster County shouldn’t let its rules stand in the way of wind farms that could bring tax revenue, valuable jobs and aid in the local fight to address climate change.
The County Board is considering changes that would reduce the minimum setback from a property that has not signed onto a project from 5 times the height of the turbines to 3½ times the height, effectively a change from one-half mile to one-third mile, as well as increasing the allowable noise threshold.
The board in 2019 adopted setbacks that wind power proponents have decried as some of the most stringent rules in the country.
But in November, the County Board sent a letter to the Lincoln-Lancaster County Planning Department asking for it to propose relaxed regulations because the board worried it had essentially zoned wind farms out of the county.
The county-city Planning Commission last month voted down most of the major changes proposed following a public hearing. The final decision, however, rests with the elected members of the County Board.
Several opponents Thursday said board members shouldn’t bend rules meant to protect rural residents to serve developers.
But David Levy, an Omaha attorney representing several wind power companies, said adopting the rule changes would bring Lancaster County into alignment with other counties in Nebraska.
Wind farms could provide additional property taxes to the county, helping to ensure improvements to ailing county roads, and create short- and long-term jobs locally, he said.
Proponents of wind turbines said national studies analyzing their effects on neighboring property values in 27 states have not shown to be deleterious.
Lu Nelsen of the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons testified that smaller communities across Nebraska have begun to experience the benefits of wind power there, with total land lease payments of nearly $15 million rolling in.
But opponents questioned how anyone could possibly know the effect wind turbines may have in Lancaster County, adding that their families’ financial futures are at stake if they depreciate surrounding acreage values.
“I’m the one that has to eat the loss with one of these monsters outside my house,” said Gale Dunbar of rural Hallam.
Several opponents called on the county to pursue development of other renewable but less domineering energy developments, including solar panels.
Whether or not commissioners change the rules, each wind turbine project proposed in the county would still be subject to a public hearing before it could be approved, and commissioners would have the ability to stipulate conditions on individual projects as part of their special permit approval.
NextEra had expressed interest in locating a wind farm in Lancaster County and also planned turbines in northern Gage County before commissioners there tightened regulations on wind farm development and implemented a moratorium until mid-July.
Supporters said wind turbines on Lancaster County ag land could not only provide more clean power production locally but it could also provide local farmers with another dependable income stream amid fluctuating farm commodity prices.
“Let’s not let the preferences of a few dictate the future of many,” Doug Dittman said, asking the board to support the rule changes.
Commissioners will deliberate and vote Feb. 18. The result could trigger a court battle as attorneys have lined up on either side of the issue.
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