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County hears from wind farm opponents

OSWEGO – Labette County commissioners were again approached Monday to consider issuing a moratorium regarding making any decisions on an agreement with RWE for development of a wind farm in the county.

Altamont resident John Williamson cited lack of evidence for the commission’s claimed benefits for an industrial wind complex in addition to citing land owner protections against public and private nuisances and determinations by some of the states’ highest courts determining industrial wind turbines are deemed a nuisance.

Williamson noted that as the commission also serves as the county board of health, it is responsible for the health, safety and welfare of all people in the county, which includes protecting them from such nuisances as laid out in Kansas statutes.

“These statutes against nuisances protect private property owners from property devaluation and/or inherent expectation of enjoying their property under the intents of ownership. Jury instruction from the courts in the state of Kansas state a person is liable in damages for the creation or maintenance of as a continuing nuisance that unreasonably interferes with the rights of another, whether in person, or property, and thereby causes (him or her) harm, inconvenience, or damage, whether intentional or through negligence,” Williamson said.

He provided cases going back to 2007, with West Virginia Supreme Court case Burch, et al. v. Nedpower Mount Storm LLC and Shell Windenergy Inc. and 2009 with the Kansas Supreme Court case of Zimmerman v. Board of County Commissioners in which the court noted that commercial wind farms have been determined not only to be a nuisance but also have a negative impact on property values, and that agricultural and nature-based tourism, of which Labette County is known for, would also suffer.

At the last meeting of the commission, Williamson asked Commissioner Cole Proehl if there was any possibility for anything to occur as a direct result or action of the commission to prevent wind energy development in the county. Proehl had responded he wanted to make a decision based on the best interest of everyone in the county.

Proehl agreed Monday that is what he said and that is how he makes every decision.

Just because there are no zoning laws within the county protecting residents, Williamson said there is still cause for refusing to allow the wind farm to be built within the county, adding it is evident county processes are falling short of the standards to protect citizens from industrial overrun.

While the county formed an adjunct advisory board, there was no request by the commission to report on potential negative impacts on the health and welfare of the taxpayers of Labette County or the negative impacts on their property values. Williamson pointed to the ordinance adopted by the commission on a 2-1 vote “without fair and deliberate consideration of what should be required to protect all county taxpayers from abuses and nuisances” because of industrial wind complexes being erected in populated rural agricultural areas.

Proehl has previously claimed the financial benefit from allowing the wind farm would help address poverty issues in Labette County. Proehl’s “fluid” resolution requests a $10 million in payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) over 10 years from RWE, which he has stated would be spent on roads and bridges, other county needs and potentially schools and other services in the county. One road and bridge project alone is estimated to cost more than $1 million, raising the question among some residents of how far $10 million will go once it is divvied up, much less how it will supposedly address the county’s high poverty rates.

“How are the rights of taxpaying property owners represented in an ordinance that does not recognize protection against property value losses under industrial development? What measures protect the welfare of taxpaying property owners from being robbed of the peace and tranquility of rural environments and unobstructed view scapes? What ordinance provisions can be shown to protect the health and welfare of property owners, families and their children from the debilitating health impacts found in industrial complexes such as wind energy conversion systems?” Williamson asked.

While Proehl stated in past meetings he had looked over every contract wind farms have made with counties across the state, Williamson said none of the commissioners have provided any evidence from any of those same counties that allowing wind farms into their communities has been of any long-term benefit other than the temporary influx of PILOT funds.

“No evidence has been provided to show counties or cities where wind energy complexes have been constructed have experienced any increases in development of other long-term, self-sustaining business or industry, or have had any decreases to outward migration or poverty rates, or increases in residential property valuations to boost tax incomes. There isn’t any proof of any long-term benefits that add to and maintain a strong tax base, no proof of the increase in jobs on a scale to pull communities out of poverty, no evidences to support long-term local beneficial incomes from production of electricity of industrial wind energy complexes.

“PILOT programs never reach the level of impact to benefit entire county communities on a long-term basis. Much has been said about these payments going to the support of civil infrastructure and other groups that provide beneficial service to county residents. There may be an initial influx of finances, there may be purchases that replace depreciated equipment, there may be other financial investments to shore up institutional interests in varying stages of disrepair. None of these benefits are long-term, self-sustaining solutions to the economic needs of our county as would be provided through permanent long-term business developments that hire local citizens and whose production outcomes are self-supporting and even more so without government subsidy,” Williamson said.

The fact courts have deemed wind turbines as a nuisance that would be imposed on neighbors to those leasing to RWE, Williamson said the situation demands more investigation and clarification of guidelines for industrial development in the rural agricultural area, in addition to the county amending ordinance L-31 to appropriate balance between the desire for renewable energy resources and the need to protect the public health, safety and welfare of the community, as well as the character and stability of the Labette County’s residential, agricultural, recreational, commercial and/or industrial areas and preserving and protecting all the county’s important and sensitive environmental and ecological assets and areas.

The county has always struggled financially to make ends meet but manages, and Williamson said there has to be other ways to help Labette County develop economically other than allowing wind turbines.

“We’re not going to die if wind energy development doesn’t happen in Labette County. We will go on and we will continue to survive, and we will probably even thrive if we maintain a standard that protects all people of Labette County and please not just a select few. … With due respect, it can’t be just at the behest of the largest land owners in the county. That’s a minority,” Williamson said.

Within just a couple of weeks, more than 903 signatures were gathered to show the opposition, and many more since that time have voiced their opposition.

It’s my plea before the commission … please don’t consider this. We have objections. These things affect our livelihood and our lifestyles negatively. Please don’t do this,” Williamson said. “There’s other ways, there’s other things we can investigate. There’s other avenues … in developing other industry, in developing other income-producing entities that can allow the citizenry of Labette County to get a job and pull themselves out of poverty.”

The commission had no questions or comments of Williamson.

Ron Eggers questioned the commissioners on whether life flight helicopters were going to be able to land in the footprint. While Labette Health’s pilots said they will land there, there could be situations in which they have to land nearby and the person be transported by ambulance to the helicopter. Eggers said that delay could cause a stroke or heart attack victim their life and asked how many people would have to die before the commission decided it is not a good idea. Commissioners said it is no different than other circumstances that prevent life flight pilots from landing at an exact location, such as power lines.

Ron Neidigh addressed the board, or more specifically Commissioner Brian Kinzie. Neidigh spoke to the appearance of improprieties, whether factual or not, on Kinzie’s part, and asked that he resign immediately.

Accusations have been made against Kinzie and his family regarding potentially profiting from a contract with RWE, which Kinzie has vehemently denied and stated was nothing more than false rumors. Questions have also arisen regarding private calls with RWE and one call between Kinzie and Proehl just days before Proehl presented his proposed resolution for an agreement with RWE. That call was found to be in violation of the Kansas Open Meetings Act. Kinzie denied they spoke of specific terms of the ordinance. Labette County commissioners were required to go through a one-hour training session for the violation.

Benefit pay

At the request of Proehl, the commission approved that all people who remain employed by the county who were employed before May 1 this year will receive a one-time bonus, with the exception of county commissioners.

Department heads and elected personnel will receive $2,500, assistant department heads will receive $2,250 and all other employees $2,000. The bonuses for these employees working through COVID-19 and absorbing additional work will be paid from the $3.8 million in funds the county will receive from the American Rescue Act. Proehl said the bonus equates to about 7% of the funds the county will receive. He added it is an incentive that will hopefully help the county keep the good workers it has.

County Counselor Brian Johnson asked that the county wait until July 10 to administer the bonus to make sure it is in compliance with the ARA and there would be no violations. The commission agreed but stated they wanted to get the ball rolling so the payday after July 10 the bonuses could be administered if allowed. The board unanimously approved the bonuses dependent on them aligning with the ARA requirements.

In other business, the commission:

— Heard from Phillip Michael, Kansas assistant attorney general for the legal opinions and government counsel division, who provided the commissioners a one-hour training on the Kansas Open Meetings Act. The training is in response to a KOMA violation on April 27.

— Discussed impacts of Senate Bill 13 on budget timelines.

— Approved an appraiser’s parcel search agreement with Community State Bank.

— Discussed protocols for agenda items to be listed and the hiring process.

— Discussed how Rural Opportunity Zone funding works.

— Agreed to meet at 1 p.m. Wednesday for 2022 budget discussions.