People in opposition to wind turbines being located in close proximity to residents of Labette County watched Tuesday night as their fight was seemingly turned into a simple formality for RWE Renewables, which plans to build a wind energy complex in the county just west of Altamont.
Speakers on a variety of topics presented much of the same information as they have before but to new audience members gathered in the Labette County High School cafeteria. Among those present were County Commissioners Lonie Addis and Cole Proehl and Brandon Hernandez, RWE Renewables wind development manager.
Hernandez informed those present the company is ready to begin initial negotiations with Labette County commissioners in regard to road use agreements, setbacks, payment in lieu of taxes and decommissioning agreements. When Proehl presented his “flexible” resolution the end of April proposing what he felt was fair for people on both sides of the issue, and still reasonable terms for the company to prevent being sued, the commission requested a response from RWE within 45 days. RWE did not meet that deadline.
The proposal only set basics to begin negotiations with RWE such as setbacks would be 1.1 times the height of a turbine or 500 feet from public roads and nonparticipating property lines, 1,600 feet from nonparticipating residences and 1 mile from incorporated towns in Labette County.
The resolution, missing vital information, needed tweaking before RWE could respond, Hernandez said.
Required studies being conducted for RWE, such as how to mitigate wildlife impacts, will not be complete until 2022 or 2023, Hernandez said.
He speculated that the proposed footprint would contain a range anywhere from 55 to 80 turbines, but that number could fluctuate based on a number of factors from weather patterns to actual turbine size and generating capacity. Hernandez said there are no current plans for any other phases of development in the county.
Asked what could stop the project, Hernandez thought a moment and then said, “Endangered species.” His response startled many present, who felt they are more important than an endangered species. Pushed on his answer, he said that is not the only thing, but an example that came to mind. Asked what other things could stop the project, Hernandez did not elaborate because he could not speak to what could stop the Labette County project specifically. One audience member said to another, “if enough people don’t sign leases.”
Proehl was quoted in the Sun recently as saying 25,000 acres of land have been leased by RWE. Around 18,000 is what is recorded at the county office. Asked where he came up with 25,000 acres, Proehl said he was told that by Cami Raschen, who denied such, saying she knew exactly how many acres were listed at the county offices as they had checked and it was Proehl who told her there were 25,000 acres leased.
Lindsey Wilson and Raschen said the public can only see what is registered with the county, not leases held by RWE that have not been filed, so the true number of leases is unknown. Browsing at the leases that have been filed, Wilson told those present that while she did not examine all the leases, among those she did see, some were leases filed within about four months of being notarized, others had been held about a year before being filed, and at least one was notarized in 2019 and was just filed in May.
Hernandez made no comment regarding the holding of leases, nor did he give any indication of the number of acres actually currently leased. He did say RWE is still looking to work with residents within the footprint to lease land.
Some believe another hope for stopping development of wind energy in Labette County could be Senate Bill 279, the Wind Generation Permit and Property Protection Act, which is another attempt to set state regulations for wind energy development in Kansas.
Mound Valley resident Debbie Cramer, who supports the bill, said it would set the concentration of turbines at one per square mile, setbacks would be 12 times a turbine’s height or 1.5 miles, whichever is greater, and the noise decibel level from generation would not be allowed to exceed 40 decibels.
One resident in Neosho County said she has 43 wind turbines within 3 miles of her home.
Advocates of wind farms, even in highly populated rural areas, say the bill would prohibit growth of wind energy in Kansas and have testified before the Legislature against it. Those opponents also said it is not right for the state to dictate to counties their use of land. At the same time, county commissioners said it should be on the state to set a standard rather than commissioners being forced to try to deal with conflicts created through them having to negotiate setbacks and other matters.
Proponents of the bill said there is nothing to protect the health, safety and property of nonleasing residents in Kansas counties targeted by wind developers because of their lack of zoning regulations.
Kansas has 41 operating wind farms and three under construction, including one in nearby Bourbon County, where opponents are also vocalizing their concerns. Kansas is fourth in the nation for renewable energy production and is led by a governor who strongly supports the continued growth of wind farms and the financial benefit to the state that they bring. Many have speculated the likelihood the bill will pass is minimal given the response of many legislators and big landowners in Kansas.
Those conducting Tuesday’s meeting have stacks of peer-reviewed scientific studies spanning over 40 years that speak to concerns about noise and infrasound impacts on populations living near wind turbines. Most of those studies state observed impacts begin to lessen as homes move past a distance of 2 to 3 miles from turbines and effects diminish at 10 miles away. Hernandez said he has information that states infrasound causes no health problems. He did not address noise and the industry’s own statements that at a minimum it causes sleep disturbances resulting in health issues.
However, Hernandez did say designers, manufacturers and others in the industry continue to try to address mitigating the problems of noise, shadow flicker, interference with communications and impacts on the environment, including people, birds, bats and other animals, through changes in the design of the turbines and continuing studies. For example, he said turbines are not nearly as noisy today as they were 20 years ago.
Residents in Neosho County have made videos of equipment showing decibel levels reaching 70 and 80 decibels in the Neosho Ridge Wind footprint. Some have stated it is like living next to an airport with the sound of plane engines that never take off to offer reprieve.
Asked his opinion on a safe distance from houses for setbacks from wind turbines, Hernandez said the industry standard is two times tip height from a home, so if a turbine is 500 feet tall, the recommended distance from a home would be 1,000 feet. Normally there is a lesser standard of distance to a nonparticipating person’s property line, of 1 to 1.5 times the height of the turbine.
Someone pointed out the alignment of the turbines by Thayer, calling it a “sickening sight” and asked how that could be allowed to happen.
Those present were informed there are no setback distances recommended by the wind turbine manufacturers. Distances are negotiated between county commissions and wind developers as to anything beyond the industry standard. Distances wind developers consider to be unreasonable to the scope of their project are usually opposed in court. If there is no zoning protection in place, developers often win these cases.
One person asked if the payment in lieu of taxes money would be used to reduce taxes. The commissioners have not previously stated there would be an intent to reduce taxes for land owners through use of PILOT funds gifted to the county. Addressing roads and bridges, deferred maintenance, equipment needs, money for schools and other entities have been mentioned and that somehow it would help reduce poverty, but not that the funds would be included in the budget directly to reduce property taxes.
Proehl did say that protecting property taxes is important.
“If we don’t lower taxes that is a problem,” Proehl said, though he did not commit to saying the PILOT funds should be used for that.
He reiterated it is his job to listen to all sides, and one side wants to move forward quickly and one wants to wait. He said he doesn’t take the issues lightly, but he does his own research and he is striving to protect the county’s interests. Proehl said he has to balance people’s concerns with property owners’ rights.
“It’s a balance,” he said, adding it is not easy and he has to consider potential litigation and what it would cost the county and the likely outcome.
Proehl said he tried to look at the worst case scenario, and bankrupting the county is not an option. He also voiced his concerns over not having as good of a company as RWE willing to work with the county, versus some of the other companies in the area.
Speaker Shirley Estrada said while commissioners in Neosho County told residents that lowering taxes was one reason for them wanting to bring Neosho Ridge Wind project in, no reduction of taxes has taken place and their mill levy has actually increased two years in a row.
“It is perfectly legal for commissioners to put this money aside into a special fund. They do not have to use it to lower your taxes. They get to decide what to do with it. Do not fall for this line that it will lower your taxes. Neosho County is the prime example that it will not, and it probably will never lower our taxes,” Estrada said. The she pointed to the issues Neosho County is facing with nearly $5 million in damages to its roads, and it being unknown if Apex will fix it, since the company sold its project to a utility company and left town.
Asked who would actually own the wind farm in Labette County, Hernandez said RWE would, adding it does not sell the majority of its wind energy complexes to utilities. Rather RWE maintains ownership and sells the energy that is produced to the utility companies to distribute.
There were a number of questions Hernandez said he could not answer or did not feel comfortable answering. Speaking to all those present, he said he would like to bring a panel of experts from RWE to answer people’s questions, but on the condition all questions are submitted beforehand so they could prepare their answers. Hernandez said it was only so they could gather the research to support what they say. He said they would not be open just to answering questions presented on the spot by audience members, bringing information they anticipate would support their answers to questions commonly asked.
Those who witnessed the same scenario take place in Neosho County felt there was no sense in having a panel come and present canned answers to questions, with no opportunity for people to speak to those or have the same ability to provide opposing information to what RWE claims. Many said the Neosho panel was ridiculous. Some called it a circus.
One resident said it is becoming more evident the mindset of some is: “Don’t confuse me with the facts; my mind is made up,” with no care for what is right.
John Williamson spoke again about the constitutional rights of all residents, and the property rights and protections guaranteed residents under Kansas law that wind developers continue to violate without repercussion as most people cannot afford to sue.
“The industry has a huge monetary investment in this. They are willing to invest a lot of money to make a lot of money,” speaker David Oas said. “I don’t begrudge them that. I’m a capitalist at heart. But they can’t do it on top of people who are concerned about their own health and welfare and the health and welfare of those around them. We can’t allow that. It’s not OK. It’s not a humanitarian way for any company to approach an area like this. Frankly, honestly Brandon, Southeast Kansas is not suitable for the kind of project you want to bring in. It just simply isn’t. I wish you all the success in the world, but it can’t be at our expense. You are asking too much of us for what you are willing to give us. That’s the bottom line. What you’re offering us is not worth what we will be giving up in the short term and especially in the long term.”
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