Speakers offered widely contrasting views of what messages it would send – and what the economic impacts would be – depending on which commercial wind development regulations the Reno County Commission adopts.
A half-dozen speakers appeared in favor of regulations forwarded by the Reno County Planning Commission, while four others called for more stringent restrictions or an outright ban on wind development in the southeast corner of the county.
Each side received 30 minutes to speak.
The County Commission then put off for two weeks further discussion on the topic to consider what they had heard and formulate their own opinions.
The Planning Commission previously proposed setbacks – the minimum distance between a wind turbine and a home – of 2,000 feet or four times the height of a turbine.
That was also the distance NextEra Energy had agreed to in a draft agreement when the county previously took up its failed application for a conditional-use permit.
Proponents of those draft regulations warned that increasing minimum setbacks would send a message that Reno County was opposed to wind development and would “shut the door” on it in the county.
Residents from the southeast quadrant of the county recommended setbacks of 3,000 feet from property lines.
During a discussion last month, the county commissioners tentatively agreed on a 3,000-foot setback from homes, which a landowner could waive.
Only the eastern third of Reno County is zoned, so the regulations would only apply there unless the county acts to zone the entire county or imposes an “overlay zoning” for wind.
A negative message?
Former Chamber President Dave Kerr recalled for the commission the process that brought Siemens Wind, now Siemens Gamesa, to Hutchinson.
“Over the months of planning and negotiating, I think I was in every meeting or on every phone call,” Kerr said. “I don’t recall a single time anyone said to Siemens, ‘we’d really like to have those jobs here, but we’re not so excited about the towers. In fact, we might come up with setbacks and covenants so severe that you probably won’t be able to sell any units here.’”
Kerr noted the planning commission was “charged with listening to both sides, consulting experts and coming up with the best compromise possible, and that’s just what they’ve done.” Increasing setbacks another 50% from that board’s recommendation “will probably kill any future projects,” he said.
“Good luck with your deliberations,” he concluded. “Our reputation as a reliable business partner may very well be at stake.”
Calling it “a pivotal moment in our town’s history regarding the future of economic development and progress toward prosperity,” Hutchison financial advisor William Thacker said the commission’s decision “will set the stage on a national level whether Reno County is open for business or not.”
Myca Welch, communications manager for the Hutchinson Siemens Gamesa plant, said the adoption of the regulations forwarded by the planning commission would “demonstrate faith in the process.”
“If you increase the setback number, it will directly impact Siemens Gamesa,” Welch said. “Not only on local projects, but in the long run. It sets a dangerous precedent that will be analyzed by wind opposition groups with a mindset ‘if we can stop a wind farm in Reno County, the home of a wind farm manufacturer, we can prevent a wind farm anywhere. This is a very real phenomenon.”
Chamber President Debra Teufel also contended “adopting the most restrictive (regulations) in Kansas is a dangerous message to send.”
The message, she said, would be to Siemens Gamesa and its employees, commercial wind developers and young people “choosing where to spend their livelihoods.”
To the contention wind farms could still be developed in the unzoned portions of western Reno County under the stricter rules, Teufel pointed to lesser wind resources there, as detailed on wind maps, and a lack of electric transmission lines in the region.
“The cost to bring more transmission lines to Reno County is tremendous,” she said. “I’m not saying that we can’t get there someday, but today it would be more costly to develop a wind farm in western Reno County.”
Teufel and Thacker both pointed to a Docking Institute study, commissioned by NextEra Energy, which projected the proposed 220 MW Pretty Prairie Wind Farm would have generated a projected $132 million impact on the county over its lifetime. That included $50 million in payments to landowners and some $39 million in tax revenue for the county.
“That kind of investment would provide a tremendous lift to Reno County residents,” she said.
“Farmers deserve to have their voices heard, too,” Teufel said, claiming they would miss out “on a way to diversify their income stream.” She then introduced Reno County farmer Larry Preisser who said, though most of his land was in western Reno County and he missed out on a contract with NextEra, farmland in parts of the county is poor and farmers need the option.
He also cited the benefits he’d seen come to Pratt and Kingman counties with their wind farms, including new roads and bridges.
“The core mission of the zoning process is to determine what regulations are necessary for the health and safety of that use,” said Alan Anderson, with the Polsinelli law firm in Kansas City. “We have to be cautious there at that point because every decision you make from that point impacts property rights … A move of even a few hundred feet will mean someone’s property will be impacted, and they will lose the right to use that property as they deem appropriate.”
“We don’t have to guess as to what protects health, safety and welfare because we have 20 years of projects in the state, 40-plus projects in something like 30 different counties,” Anderson said. “And 100 percent of those projects have been a success story where they’re hosted. In fact, where you’ll find projects are located, they want more projects, and they don’t go anywhere near these type of restrictions into their ordinances because they’ve seen the impact.”
Be more restrictive
Those seeking stricter regulations were primarily residents who live in the area of the original NextEra project, who voiced belief the recommendations of the planning commission would kill development in that region of the county.
Jason Seiwert suggested Reno County join McPherson and Sedgwick counties and ban wind development completely, at least in the southeast corner of the county.
Seiwert cited the impact he’s seen on planned developments in the area and argued residential development would have a bigger positive economic impact for the county than wind.
One development announced two years ago is on hold after the developer learned a wind farm was a possibility for the region, Seiwert said. Another smaller one has not sold a single lot, with two buyers backing out following disclosure of the possibility of a wind farm.
A third development called Indian Ridge 4 miles east of his property has sold 32 of 37 lots in the past 1 ½ years, with seven lots occupied and eight under construction. It’s in Sedgwick County, which has banned commercial wind, Seiwert noted.
The value of homes there, he said, range from $325,000 to $700,000. The lower-end home would generate more than $5,000 a year in property tax. Times 20, which would equate to more than $100,000 a year and multiplied over decades, would mean millions in county revenue.
“Do the simple math,” Seiwert said. “You can quickly surpass estimates the wind farms suggest the county will receive from the development.”
Haven-area real estate agent Jessica Schmidt, a former economic development director for Haven and a school board member, also discussed the impact on home sales from wind development.
“Perception drives buying decisions,” Schmidt said. “For example, the perceived enjoyment of a home on a beautiful, unobstructed open prairie versus a home with a massive wind farm next to it … When a buyer acts on perception, they establish value and we see the effects of this perception.”
A study by Forensic Appraisal Group of Neenah, Wis. – the same group that does the tax value analysis for Reno County, Schmidt noted – evaluated the impact of a turbine 2,600 feet from one- to five-acre tracts, and determined it would lead to an average 60% loss in value.
A separate analysis of sales data, she said, saw a 12% to 40% loss, depending on the proximity of turbines.
“We’re starting to see the negative impact with just the potential for wind in our county,” Schmidt contended, noting homes sales in the county over the past 24 months showed homes north of US-50 highway drew 98.4% of their list price, but those selling south of the highway sold for only 91.9%.
She also polled her clients if they’d feel with a turbine within 2,500 feet of their home, and “71% of my current active home buyers in rural Reno County have indicated that they would not purchase a home near a turbine, even if it’s exactly what they were looking for.”
Haven Road resident Lynn Thalman, a retired teacher who farms with his son in southeast Reno County, offered that no other wind farm in the state is in an area as densely populated.
Concerns over noise, shadow flicker, ice throws, and impacts on wildlife are valid reasons for greater setbacks and should not be discounted, he said.
He has an epileptic granddaughter, Thalman said, and shadow flicker can trigger seizures. He asked for 3,000-foot setbacks from property lines and a maximum of 20 hours a year of allowed shadow flicker.
The final speaker was resident Andy Helton, who said a small number of homeowners are being asked to bear the brunt of the negative impacts of wind development, and being opposed to it “is not something we need to apologize for.”
“No one in this room is different,” he said. “No one would want something like this in their backyard that would affect their backyard… This would literally be in our backyards and our houses. Folks who spoke earlier said ‘it’s not too bad.’ They’re not living there. How many of those who spoke in favor of these regulations actually live in this rural part of the county. That number is zero.”
Helton reminded the commission the landowners in the area have presented four petitions since the process began, with between 400 to 700-plus signatures. The most recent had 517 “gathered in one week during a pandemic and during an arctic snowstorm,” he said.
Helton noted the county’s own Comprehensive Plan points to the southeast quadrant as the county’s highest-growth area because of its proximity to Wichita.
“To do this to the southeast corner is to say we’re going to stop that growth,’” Helton said. “Thirty years from now, my house will still be paying taxes. Where will that wind farm be? In a landfill somewhere.”
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