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Lancaster County eases restrictions on wind turbines

Lancaster County commissioners eased some of the strictest rules in the country on wind turbines Thursday to make it easier to develop a renewable energy source they said was key in the local effort to confront climate change.

The County Board voted 3-1 to reduce the required setbacks, raise noise thresholds and nix a requirement that protected nonparticipating, nearby vacant lots from turbine noise. Commissioner Deb Schorr cast the lone no vote, and Commissioner Roma Amundson couldn’t attend Thursday’s meeting.

The board’s three Democrats, Sean Flowerday, Christa Yoakum and Rick Vest, carried the vote and said the county’s new regulations provide an opportunity to help farmers and the area diversify its energy production in a climate-friendly way.

“We have run out of time,” Flowerday said. “And if we don’t make meaningful change to replace fossil fuel generation with clean alternatives in the very near future, we are going to reap the devastating consequences of climate chaos.”

Thursday’s vote came one week after proponents and opponents of the changes testified at a five-hour public hearing. Supporters of relaxing the rules argued Lancaster County should not keep rules that effectively prohibit development, but some acreage dwellers said the county shouldn’t throw out rules protecting them to cater to business interests.

In November, the County Board asked the Planning Department to draft new rules because no projects had been proposed following tweaks made to rules in 2019.

The changes reduced the required setback from homes not signed onto the project from five 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.

Schorr, who represents southwest Lincoln and Lancaster County, said she supports green energy generation, but she believes easing the rules will reduce property values and the quality of life for people who live next to turbines.

She tried and failed to get the board to keep its current regulations and then unsuccessfully sought a grace period that would have extended setback protections to rural landowners who began building a house on their land by August 2022.

Vest read a statement from Amundson, who was on vacation and unable to return for the vote due to hazardous weather. She said she ultimately believed the issue was about the rights of property owners to use their land for legal and lawful purposes and that she would support changes to the wind farm rules.

Yoakum said she felt it was past time for the county to push for more diverse energy production, and Vest said he believed making it easier to develop wind turbines could provide farmers who lease land to the systems a reliable revenue stream amid fluctuating commodity markets.

Since 2015, the County Board has tweaked its regulations governing wind turbines several times, but Vest said Thursday’s vote ends the back-and-forth policy-making.

“This is going to be the final voice on this subject,” Vest said.

Each wind turbine project in Lincoln would require a special permit and public hearings before it could be approved for development.

David Levy, an attorney representing several wind energy companies, said the new rules strike a fairer balance, and the county has favorable wind patterns, access to transmission lines and close proximity to cities like Lincoln and Omaha, which is important for future projects.

“Lancaster County is an attractive place for wind energy development,” Levy said.