State regulators have ordered the operator of a wind farm to move one of its turbines following a dispute over the proximity of the tower to a house on a landowner’s property in Oliver County.
The North Dakota Public Service Commission voted 3-0 Wednesday to require that Minnesota Power remove the turbine within six months. The company can either leave it down or move it farther away from the home.
Such an order is rare, though disputes have arisen in the past over the proximity of turbines to structures.
The Kessler family raised a complaint with the PSC last year over the placement of the turbine, which is 1,125 feet away from the house. The turbine falls within the 1,400-foot buffer the company indicated it would maintain between turbines and occupied residences at its Bison wind farm that straddles Morton and Oliver counties.
At issue is whether the house is considered an “occupied residence,” as the Kesslers do not live in it full time but use it from time to time. The PSC determined it is occupied.
“I think it’s a great day in North Dakota for all landowners, for all residents, to have this ability to stand up for their rights,” Keith Kessler said after Wednesday’s vote. “It’s uncommon for a small landowner to go up against a big company like this, but we didn’t just do it for ourselves. We did it for future generations.”
The Kesslers bought the house in 1988 and used to live in it. Their children have stayed there during summers and the family plans to continue to use it, according to Keith and his wife, Deanna Kessler.
PSC Chair Julie Fedorchak said state law does not define an occupied residence, so the PSC had to make the call.
“The company never checked with them to ask them, simply, ‘Is this an occupied residence?’” she said. “It would have been very easy for the company to do.”
Fedorchak said Minnesota Power told the PSC that it consulted plat books and satellite information to determine whether the residence was occupied, and it conducted site visits. The company could tell that the lawn outside had been mowed, but it didn’t appear anyone was living there, she said.
Commissioner Randy Christmann said companies “need to present everything that’s a close call to us so we can make these decisions.”
Keith Kessler said he hopes this dispute will prompt wind developers in the future to “do their homework” and aim for better communication and relationships with landowners. The state Legislature should also require a greater distance between wind turbines and residences, he said, adding that noise from nearby turbines is an issue.
The Kesslers are participating landowners in the Bison wind farm, with several turbines on their land.
Minnesota Power has been evaluating how to best remove the turbine and options for a potential new location, spokesperson Amy Rutledge said.
Christmann said the removal will come at a “substantial” cost to Minnesota Power, potentially over $1 million.
“I think you’re going to see a whole lot of developers being a lot more cautious about making sure they are completely transparent about what’s out there,” he said.
Commissioner Brian Kroshus said the PSC’s decision will send a “very clear message” to the companies it regulates that they should not make assumptions.
The Bison wind farm was built in four phases. The first was completed in 2012 and the last, which encompasses the wind turbine and house involved in the dispute, was finished in 2015, according to Minnesota Power’s website.
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