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Worth County tables wind turbine moratorium

A discussion that was supposed to determine whether the Worth County Board of Supervisors should approve a moratorium on commercial wind projects instead pivoted to a more complicated topic – county-wide zoning.

And that discussion resulted in the board tabling its temporary moratorium on commercial wind farms.

Developer Invenergy, doing business in the area as Worthwhile Wind and Solar Farm, seeks to construct a 30,000-acre wind farm in Worth and Winnebago counties and has been working with landowners in both counties on the easements needed to construct the turbines.

The first to speak on the topic was moratorium supporter Julie Kuntz. Kuntz distributed copies of a letter backing the moratorium signed by 231 residents, she said, including a young girl named Lily Rose, who insisted on signing it, Kuntz said, “since she’ll be the one to inherit this mess.”

Calling the proposed 550-foot turbines “monstrosities,” she said that despite Invenergy promising residents in a previous project in the county that no turbines would be erected fewer than 1,500 feet from a residence, she knew of at least two that were under 1,000 feet from homes.

Because Worth County’s unincorporated areas and nine of its townships do not have zoning regulations, the only protection a landowner has is to include setback requirements in their contract with the energy company that’s building the turbine. But that doesn’t protect the landowner’s neighbors, and that’s how a couple of Worth County residents ended up with turbines closer than 1,000 feet to their homes.

Next door neighbor Winnebago County has a permitting process that will preclude some of the same issues from happening there.

And while Kuntz acknowledged that the money the county has received from previous wind projects have paved roads in the area, that’s not a fair trade.

“I’ll take a gravel road with no red, blinking lights (from a turbine) any day,” she said.

Worthwhile Wind’s representative, Ethan Evans, piggy backed on Kuntz’s acknowledgment of the money the county has received by noting that the county receives $4.8 million in annual tax revenue from turbines.

“I’m pretty much against everything else she said,” Evans said in reference to Kuntz’s comments.

He said the county has benefited with 65 new miles of paved roads, in addition to nearly three-quarters of a million dollars going to its schools. He warned the supervisors that such benefits might not always be available.

Noting that the Biden administration backs green energy like wind, “One day farmland could be taken by the government by eminent domain, with no benefit.”

When asked for input, County Attorney Jeff Greve said every county in Iowa that has a moratorium on wind turbines also has county zoning. He suggested the supervisors consult with the North Iowa Area Council on Governments (NIACOG), which he said has worked with county governments in the past on county-wide zoning.

Supervisor AJ Stone said the temporary moratorium isn’t about stopping wind farms.

“It’s about making it fair for the ones that don’t want them,” he said.

The moratorium would give the board time to develop county-wide zoning, making regulations equal among all the county’s townships, instead of just the three that currently have zoning. Regulations regarding the construction of turbines would be a part of that.

Supervisor Mark Smeby noted that Stone has been on the Board of Supervisors for two years and hasn’t “done anything” to move county-wide zoning forward. Smeby said he is against both the moratorium and county-wide zoning, saying his constituents have told him they don’t want another layer of government to wade through to build or expand.

Stone shot back that the reason he hasn’t made any progress is that he knew the final outcome was going to be 2-1 against him on the three-member board.

“They (Invenergy) are not sticking to their word (in promising 1,500-foot setbacks,” Stone said. “Do you know how much it sucks to say, ‘Sorry, there’s nothing I can do for you.’ That’s ridiculous.”

Smeby: “We’ve had wind in the county for over 21 years and up until the last couple of years it’s never been an issue.”

Supervisor Enos Loberg joined the board in January, and he made clear in his remarks that he was not like his predecessor. He said he had a copy of a contract a landowner received from Invenergy and it didn’t have anything in it regarding a setback. When he asked about it, the company said it was a “verbal agreement.”

“When people can hear a wind turbine when they’re sitting at their dining room table, then we’re not doing our job,” Loberg said. “But a moratorium is the last thing I want.”

The board directed Auditor Jacki Backhaus to reach out to NIACOG to schedule a discussion about county-wide zoning.