A planned wind farm could bring millions of dollars in taxes and fees into the county over its 30-year lifespan, but a state senator is warning residents to be sure they understand how the giant turbines could change peoples’ lives.
Agents for the Honey Creek Wind Farm are leasing property in northern Crawford County and southern Seneca County, said Drew Christensen, public engagement manager for parent company Apex Clean Energy Inc.
“The plan is for about a 360-megawatt wind project,” he said. “That would be enough power to power about 102,000 homes every year.”
While the project is still in its early planning stages, that’s expected to mean roughly 75 turbines, each between 400 and 600 feet tall, will be needed, he said.
For comparison, the Rhodes Office Tower – the tallest building in downtown Columbus – is 629 feet tall. The two turbines on the Wynford Local School District campus are just over 120 feet tall, according to previous reports.
Under terms of an Alternative Energy Zone approved by Crawford County commissioners in 2011, the developers would not pay standard property taxes on the turbines. Instead, they would make an annual Payment in Lieu of Taxes, or PILOT fee, of $9,000 per megawatt, nameplate capacity, Commissioner Doug Weisenauer said.
That works out to $3.24 million coming into the county each year in PILOT fees alone.
Impact on agricultural landscape
But state Sen. Bill Reineke, R-Tiffin, said he thinks it’s a serious issue for the county.
“I’m not saying it’s good or bad; I’m just saying we cannot go into this with our eyes closed. … We need to be aware of what these really do for the community,” he said.
He’s concerned it will disrupt the county’s agricultural landscape.
This month, Reineke and state Sen. Rob McColley, R-Napoleon, introduced Senate Bill 52, which would require safety specifications in wind farm certificate applications, modify wind turbine setbacks, and permit townships to have referendum votes on some wind farm certificates.
Reineke said he wants to address the “property rights issue to try to protect those people who might be opposed to that and/or want that – it’s not my decision, but I think everybody should have the set of facts to know what’s happening.”
Reineke introduces Senate Bill 52
Ohio law defines a wind farm an “installation of wind turbines and their associated facilities, all sharing a single interconnection to the electrical transmission grid,” according to the “First Stop Checklist for Alternative Energy” on the Ohio Small Business Development Centers’ website. Wind farms are classified by how many megawatts of energy they produce. Anything that produces more than 50 watts is considered a utility scale wind farm.
Such projects must be approved and certified by the Ohio Power Siting Board (OPSB). They require no approval from county or township officials, though the checklist notes “local governments and citizens groups have full opportunity to participate in public information, outreach and input opportunities as part of the OPSB approval process.”
Reineke’s Senate Bill 52 states if the power siting board certifies a project, the approval becomes effective on the 90th day after it’s issued – unless a referendum petition for township voters is filed with the board of elections before the 90 days are up.
“The main thrust of where I’m coming from on this is that there needs to be an awareness of what the wind turbines do to the agricultural communities,” Reineke said in an interview.
“Currently there are negotiations going on with land owners and maybe the neighbors don’t necessarily know about those,” he said. “So all of a sudden we will have this influx of up to 600-foot tall structures.”
Honey Creek aims to file for permit by end of 2021
Apex Clean Energy acquired the Honey Creek project from another company a couple of years ago, Christensen said.
“I think a lot of Crawford County are aware that there’s been talk of a wind energy project here for a while, and some leasing efforts, but not necessarily a lot of forward progress,” he said. Apex considers the area “really ripe for wind energy development,” and has been leasing land while working out where the best sites for the turbines are, and what turbine models will be used.
“Wind turbines right now are advancing real quickly; they’re almost like our cell phones; there’s a new and improved model every year that’s more efficient, can generate more power,” Christensen said. “So by the time we’re entering a permitting process at Honey Creek, we could have more efficient turbines.”
That could mean it would require fewer than the 75 turbines currently estimated. That’s also why the height of the turbines remains uncertain, though in “visual simulations, the 400-foot turbine and the 600-foot turbine actually don’t appear all that differently to the eye,” Christensen said.
The plan is for the company to file for a permit by the end of this year and have the project complete in 2023, he said.
Christensen stressed the positive economic impact the project would have on the county.
“We’re talking during construction literally hundreds of jobs, and long-term, we’re talking about 10 to 12 long-term, well-paying jobs in operations on the wind farm,” he said. “Beyond that, there’s a significant amount of money that’s going directly into the community: $18 million to the county and townships over the life of the project, almost $36 million in payments to the schools over the 30-year life of the project. So it’s real money that’s going into the community.”
Other communities have used wind farm income to improve schools or reduce property taxes, he said.
“It’s an exciting opportunity when you have a big influx of money like that and to be able to decide how to use that money to best invest in the community,” Christensen said.
In addition to the increased tax revenue, over the life of the project, $40 million will be paid to landowners and others who have signed agreements with the company, he said; that money will flow into local businesses, boosting the regional economy.
How much any given lease-holder will receive each year won’t be known until plans for the project are complete, Christensen explained; it’s based on how the property ends up being used. Some will have turbines, but others might have access roads, underground cables or maintenance buildings. There’s also “community rent,” a share of the profits generated by the project. It’s a pool of money based on how much energy is produced, distributed to participants based on how many acres they have in the project.
“All project lease-holders are eligible to receive a portion of the community rent on the project, which is a minimum of $1,500 per year, even if no facilities are sited on their properties,” Christensen said. “Lease-holders hosting turbines are guaranteed a minimum payment based on turbine model chosen, which is expected to be well in excess of $21,000 per year, per turbine.”
‘Losing the rural landscape’
Wind farm opponent Kimberly Groth lives in Bloom Township in southern Seneca County; Honey Creek is the second wind farm project that could potentially affect her neighborhood. While she cited several specific concerns – the impact on property values and wildlife, the noise levels and flickering light – those aren’t the biggest issues, she said.
“It’s been almost three years since this was kind of dropped on my family up here in Seneca County,” she said. “And I guess, looking back at this point, if I take a bigger picture look, the concerns are from the beginning a lack of knowledge within the community of what is being planned.”
Wind farm companies can be in a community for years, even a decade or more, leasing land and developing plans, without local residents being told what’s in the works, she said.
“The local community’s not aware of what’s happening until it’s very far progressed into the process,” she said. “Once you get to the point where the developer comes forward and announces the project and shares details, then the community really doesn’t have any local control. This would have a huge impact on the community. … From what I am able to gather, it could potentially impact the entire northern half of Crawford County. And so you’re talking about half of the county losing the rural landscape as they know it.”
Residents deserve a voice in such a momentous change, but under current law, the ultimate decision is made by an unelected board in Columbus, she said.
She urged Crawford County residents to educate themselves.
“That’s the most important part,” she said. “And talk to their neighbors.”
Before announcing a project, developers approach a small portion of the local population – primarily people they’re approaching to see if they’re interested in leases, she said. Those people have no way of knowing how their neighbors might feel about the project.
“What I think has happened here in Seneca County is that people might sign up for this thinking that their community will welcome it, and I think for many it has come as a shock, how the community actually responded and how much concern that there was,” Groth said. “But by the time that was known, anyone who was in a lease, it was too late to change their mind if they would want to.”
“Some people are deeply offended that neighbors would put up 600-foot-tall structures next to their property,” Reineke said, echoing that concern.
“What my issue is and what I’ve been hearing from my constituents is that this is going to be a surprise,” he said.
Although the wind farm issue is new to Crawford County, Reineke said, he’s been dealing with it in Seneca County.
“One of the major issues in my opinion that’s really critical is the preservation of agriculture land for the purposes as we know it, which is agriculture,” he said. “A wind turbine displaces quite a bit of property; it takes the topsoil off the land and then redistributes it. Then of course you cannot use that land for the cultivation of crops, similar to what we’re using it for now. One of the major considerations is the agricultural preservation.”
According to Honey Creek’s website, turbines will be spaced about a quarter- to a half-mile apart on active farmland, and each turbine typically requires less than half an acre of land.
The wind farms are “deeply subsidized by the federal government,” Reineke said, and the energy they generate goes to the grid, meaning local residents “get no direct benefit.”
What is the effect on neighbors?
Some issues have a direct effect on the immediate neighbors, such as sound and “shadow flicker,” caused when sunlight is passing through a turbine’s blades. Every time a blade passes, there’s a flicker effect. Groth also criticized Ohio’s property setback requirements for turbines.
Weisenauer said he doesn’t agree with the concerns he’s heard cited.
“It will change the landscape,” he said. “And that’s what it boils down to: People will say well, there’s all sorts of accusations, that they have all kinds of fear. … I’ve looked at all of them and personally, I don’t agree with them. I visited several wind farms across the county, and I don’t have an issue with them.”
Property value study ‘is not reassuring’
Information provided by wind farm developers can be misleading, Groth said, pointing to a 2013 Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory study of property values cited on Honey Creek’s website.
It quotes the study as finding “the core results of our analysis consistently show no sizable statistically significant impact of wind turbines on nearby property values.” The website states that researchers analyzed 51,276 home sales near 67 wind farms in nine states. All were within 10 miles of a wind farm.
“I’ve read that study. It is not reassuring to me,” Groth said, pointing out that the Honey Creek site states that of the 51,000 sales analyzed, only 1,198 were within one mile of a turbine.
“That’s about 2%, so 98% of the properties they looked at were more than a mile away from a turbine,” she said. “My home had 19 turbines proposed within two miles. That’s very different. If my property were five miles from the nearest turbine, I don’t think I would be as concerned about my property value. This is what they’re using to reassure folks in Crawford County, but this is not an apples to apples comparison of what I fully expect they’re going to propose.”
‘We’re happy to answer’
Honey Creek representatives have met with Crawford County commissioners several times.
“They just approached us a couple years ago to let us know they were in the area, talking with property owners, and occasionally we get updates from them,” Weisenauer said.
Christensen said Honey Creek officials plan to focus on informing the pubic about what’s planned in coming months.
“We’re really excited to be in Crawford County; we really enjoy our conversations with people in Crawford County, with elected officials in Crawford County, and have just found it a great place that’s excited for this form of economic development and to partner on this project,” he said. “We’re excited to continue that outreach, and as the project advances, we’ll be doing more – public information meetings, and question-and-answer sessions and even just events where people can come and learn a little bit more about wind energy.
“We probably would have been doing more of those, frankly, already, but obviously COVID and the pandemic have limited the ability to have those larger events like we normally like to do.”
He said he hopes to be able to have such meetings later this year, but in the meantime, people can visit the company’s website, honeycreekwindpower.com, or reach out by phone or email.
Although wind power is “in some ways is really a tried and true form of energy,” it’s new to this area, he said. “There are a lot of legitimate questions that people have that we’re happy to answer.”
Wind farm developers work extensively with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources when siting turbines, he said, and ODNR plays an integral role in the permitting process.
“We do extensive years of study on migratory patterns, nesting locations, and all of those things inform where our turbines go, where our projects go,” Christensen said. They also conduct extensive sound studies and sound modeling.
Christensen said his company is aware some people oppose its plans, while others simply have questions.
“We’ve been developing wind projects in the counties north of Crawford for a number of years and are in the final stages of the permitting process on those projects, and certainly like anything, there are people that are in favor – strongly in favor – and some people that have concerns,” Christensen said. “We as a company like to make ourselves available to address peoples’ concerns and have conversations.”
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