While not directly involved in discussions between groups on each side of the proposed zoning regulations for commercial wind in the county, County Commissioner Daniel Friesen said Wednesday that he is “getting updates” and he believes there is still opportunity for compromise.
Friesen asked his fellow commissioners Tuesday to indefinitely table bringing back Wind Energy Conversion Systems (WECS) regulations for further discussion until there is more movement toward that.
“I expect this to become more ripe in the next month or so,” he said Tuesday.
His action, however, drew the ire of both Commission Chairman Ron Hirst and residents in southeast Reno County who claim there has been no progress toward compromise and that draft regulations need to be acted on.
It marked the third the commission has tabled acting on the proposed regulations, the others in March and April.
Hirst, for his part, said he was “tired of being lobbied” and wanted to proceed with the discussion.
Members of Reno County Citizens for Quality of Life, a group of residents who formed an LLC to fight the NextEra “Pretty Prairie Wind” project, penned an unsigned letter that went to The News and all three commissioners.
It criticized Friesen for not being willing to discuss the regulations on Tuesday, as had been scheduled, and for the sometimes sharp exchange with Hirst.
Before the meeting, Friesen asked Hirst to remove the item from the agenda, but as chairman Hirst insisted it had been tabled to a specific date so the board had to take it up.
When contacted by The News after the meeting, Friesen said he did not want to discuss details about the outside discussions or who’s involved for fear of disrupting them.
“I don’t have all the details, and the limited detail I have I feel like disclosing them publically would result in one party or the other using against the other,” he said. “That’s why I’m encouraging the chairman to allow the process to develop a little more. So that the issues don’t get derailed before they are fully worked through.”
“I’m not particularly enjoying this process either,” Friesen said. “Both parties are frustrated at me right now…. (But) anything being worked on, in my view, are opportunities for moving closer to both parties’ goals. I’m not supportive of any situation where one party tries to completely undercut the other.”
Part of the challenge, Friesen said, is that the regulations would only apply in zoned areas of the county. That is largely the county’s southeast quadrant where NextEra Energy applied to construct an 80-plus-turbine wind farm but residents halted it through a petition that forced a unanimous county commission vote to approve.
A subsequent lawsuit by NextEra remains pending in the Kansas Court of Appeals. There are no indications when the court will take it up.
“We’re talking about general zoning guidelines as they may pertain to any project,” Friesen said. But discussions by both sides revolve around the NextEra project, so “it’s really unfair to not look at that project itself in determining how to move forward.”
Friesen said officials with the Chamber of Commerce have “definitely been talking with NextEra,” and the multinational wind developer indicated, he said, that a minimum 3,000-foot setback as proposed by landowners – and backed by Hirst – would essentially kill chances for a project.
He conceded NextEra “has used threatening words before,” claiming certain actions would kill the project, and yet the company is still suing more than a year later to proceed.
At one point during Tuesday’s discussion, Friesen accused Hirst of being inflexible, stating “you’re the least flexible of the commission on your position and until you begin to be flexible I don’t think it’s going to move.”
Hirst then said he was willing to discuss it, but Friesen still moved to table.
“It’s less about any one issue and more about supporting a process that gets us to a compromise that more people could agree to,” Friesen said Wednesday.
“I continue to see both sides of the issue,” he said. “I see the property rights arguments, and there are arguments on both sides. I see the economic impact arguments and the importance of Reno County supporting wind development, given we’re supporting wind manufacturing.”
He also understands the opposition of those who don’t want turbines in their backyards, Friesen said, and their response to his efforts surprised him.
“I feel like it’s apparent I’m taking their views into substantial consideration, given that I have yet to agree with the proposal presented by the County Planning Commission and all the work they had done,” Friesen said.
“We are beyond disappointed with the results of (Tuesday’s) meeting,” the letter from the Reno County Citizens for Quality of Life stated. “This was an agenda item set at a date of your request, and we were anxiously awaiting resolution from all commissioners today. Your criticism of Commissioner Hirst’s decision to leave the item on the agenda was unprofessional and unprecedented.”
“At what point, Commissioner Friesen, can there be discussion? At what point will there be a line drawn? When will you look beyond the politics of the immediate situation and do what is right?” the letter continued. “This is no longer a question of politics. You have been a sworn-in commissioner for five months and it is time for a vote.”
The group also stated it didn’t believe Hutchinson residents should have any say on the regulations since wind farm development in the county can only occur in rural outlying areas.
“We need your voice and support,” the letter concluded. “Please prove that you are a commissioner of the people and not just another politician full of empty promises.”
Commissioner Ron Sellers on Tuesday agreed to table the item again, “to help you refine your vote on this,” but he suggested it should be for no more than 30 days.
“I think all you’re doing is putting this off forever,” he said.
“Both groups are as frustrated as I am, but I think that frustration is motivating,” Friesen said. “Neither party likes this kind of unknown status. If there’s a better way to motivate the groups to resolve this, I’m all ears. But it’s the best solution I’ve got. I’m uniquely positioned as the swing vote to continue to put some pressure on this issue.”
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