OSWEGO – The proposed industrial wind farm in Labette County brought lively discussion Monday between two commissioners and a rural Mound Valley man.
Josh Ghering, who lives in the Big Hill Lake area but outside of the proposed footprint of the wind farm that the German utility RWE Renewables wants to build in western Labette County, was to discuss health and safety issues tied to the wind development with county commissioners. RWE wants to erect 50 to 75 turbines or more within the boundaries of 8000 to 19000 roads and Meade to Douglas roads. RWE has leased land within this footprint and land that is outside of this footprint. The company also installed at least one tower to collect weather data in this area.
Ghering initially asked about the proposed 1 mile turbine-free zone around communities in the footprint that Commissioner Cole Proehl included in a resolution. Commissioner Brian Kinzie supported the resolution that contained negotiating points for RWE nearly four months ago when it was introduced. Commissioner Lonie Addis voted no.
Ghering asked about the 1-mile zone. Proehl asked: “Do you not want that?”
Ghering said he wanted that same protection for the estimated 200 families who live within the proposed footprint of the wind farm. Parsons has a three-mile extraterritorial zone. He wanted that same protection in the county’s resolution.
Proehl said the commission doesn’t have authority to create that zone. Only cities have the authority to create extraterritorial zoning outside their borders. The larger zone would require an agreement with RWE.
Ghering asked if it were possible to seek a 3-mile zone from RWE to protect residents in the footprint.
Proehl asked Ghering how far he lived from city limits. Ghering didn’t know what difference that made and said he was asking for those who lived in the footprint.
Proehl said he doesn’t have authority to tell landowners what they can do with their land. While the county has some authority, Proehl said it’s not enough to stop an industrial wind farm from being built on a leaseholder’s property.
Ghering said he was offering commissioners solutions to protect the health and safety of citizens who may live close to wind turbines if they are built. He asked if RWE would agree to a longer no-turbine zone around cities.
Proehl said no. The only way to enforce a 1-mile zone or a 3-mile zone around a community is to have an agreement between the county and the developer. He said the 1 mile zone is the only distance that’s been in place without litigation being involved. If the county required a 3-mile zone, the county would be sued and would lose. Then the county would not have an agreement in place to restrict the development, Proehl said.
Ghering asked Kinzie if he agreed there was a lot of conflicting data on wind energy. Last month, Kinzie told Ghering that he read a report from Iowa that disputes health issues tied to wind turbines. Kinzie told Ghering to address his question to Addis, who allowed him on the agenda. Ghering wanted to talk to Kinzie because he lives in Kinzie’s district. Kinzie said he wouldn’t answer the question.
Ghering asked Kinzie if the health and safety of Labette County residents was his No. 1 concern. Kinzie said it was. Kinzie asked Ghering how many wind farms were in the country.
Ghering didn’t answer that but said he didn’t think Kinzie was going to answer questions. Someone in the seats behind Ghering spoke and Kinzie became upset. “Jesus … How many times do we have to go over this?” Addis said only the person with the appointment could speak.
Addis added that if the wind development goes in it would impact a lot of people for many years.
Kinzie said the wind development would impact a lot of people positively, too.
Addis said people with leases would benefit. Kinzie asked what the people who get those leases would do with their money.
“They’re building a new clinic here. Isn’t that a good thing?” Kinzie said, referring to the Labette Health medical clinic and ambulance service barn that’s under construction on Commercial Street in Oswego.
Addis said that wasn’t built with money from lease payments in a wind farm.
Kinzie said the Beachner family will receive lease payments. Kinzie asked Addis if “Corky” Beachner was one of the people who would make money from the wind development. He asked Addis if he knew how much Beachner gave to the medical clinic construction in Oswego.
The Oswego clinic was not part of a capital campaign. The hospital foundation received tax credits two years ago to help fund the project. Matt Vail donated a portion of the sale of the property to the hospital. Commercial Bank donated a building beside the property and bought some of the tax credits. The Labette Health Foundation and the Beachner family purchased tax credits. Cory and Lisa Hugo made a contribution, and Dr. Stephen Miller and others made donations. “If you make a donation, you get 70% tax credit,” Labette Health CEO Brian Williams said at the groundbreaking for the clinic in May.
Ghering told commissioners he thought the solution to health concerns of residents inside and near the footprint would be to locate the wind development inside Great Plains Industrial Park, which is at the former Kansas Army Ammunition Plant. He said the park has roads, rails and acreage, though Kinzie argued the amount of acres available for development. Day & Zimmermann Inc. purchased 4,000 of the nearly 14,000-acre park and Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism has 3,000 acres in the park. This leaves just under 7,000 acres for development, Kinzie said.
Ghering said the turbines could be lined up like dominoes in the park. Proehl asked Ghering how that would work.
Kinzie said when he served as a commissioner before and was involved in transitioning the ammunition plant to an industrial park he considered wind development in the park. He said RWE engineers have determined where they would like the turbines to go.
“We don’t tell them where to go?” Kinzie said.
Proehl said commissioners have no control over private business. He asked Ghering what commissioners should tell the leaseholders in western Labette County if the project is moved to the industrial park. Who would pay the landowners who expect pay for 20 years? He said RWE made a decision to go where it was most viable for the project.
Proehl asked Ghering if he was 100% sure the technology, power lines and logistics would work to have the wind development in the park.
Ghering said he was just asking if it’s possible.
“No. You don’t know. Stop making assumptions that you know everything,” Proehl said.
Ghering asked Proehl why the county should not consider the park instead of western Labette County.
“If everything is already there, from a business perspective, how could this possibly be pointless?” Ghering said.
Proehl said businesses look for the most economical way to complete a project. He asked if an international wind developer would not have looked at that first or would it have decided just to look at western Labette County, “because it’s going to cost them more money.”
“This is already been. … It’s been examined. It’s been researched,” Proehl said, referring to turbine placement.
Ghering said, “commissioner.”
Proehl said: “No I am not done. Where it is placed is based on the wind that is produced based on how cost effective, how much energy can be produced, what the benefit is to everybody involved. That’s where they go.”
Ghering and Proehl then discussed how often the wind blows in Labette County. They have discussed this before and determined the wind blows 32% of the time, Ghering said. Ghering asked if the wind blew more in western Labette County compared to eastern.
“I said the efficiency of a wind turbine is 35% roughly,” Proehl said. “There is nothing I can say that will change your mind.”
Said Ghering: “I’m giving you a solution to the problem, commissioner.”
Kinzie said the county may be able to recruit a wind developer who would consider Great Plains. He then discussed the need to leave space available in Great Plains for industries that could create 300 to 400 jobs. Restrictions on building in proximity to wind turbines could make difficult having both developments in one area, which is why wind developments were not considered for the park in the early going. Kinzie also scolded Ghering for interrupting him when he was explaining the benefits of Great Plains and the recent approval of a foreign trade subzone there that could benefit industries.
Ghering said some landowners in the footprint of the proposed development probably do not know about the restrictions of building near a wind turbine, which he said was called trespass zoning.
Ghering said he was just trying to offer a solution to the current proposal. Proehl said he wasn’t offering a solution, only a “pie in the sky” request.
Budget drops more
Commissioners also on Monday approved for publication the 2022 budget, which reflects a lower mill levy, and scheduled public hearings for Aug. 31 on the budget. Commissioners have been working on the budget steadily for more than a month and have tried to reduce the property tax levy.
The levy this year is 61.542 mills, which generated $8,654,493 million for the county. The total 2021 budget is $15 million.
Next year’s total budget will be $16 million, but the support from property taxes will drop to $7,691,304. The levy will drop to a proposed 54.359 mills. The final levy is set in the fall.
A mill is a $1 tax for every $1,000 in assessed value. For a home valued at $60,000, taxes to support county operations at the 2021 tax rate are $424.64. With the proposed levy of 54.359 mills in 2022, that same homeowner would pay $375.07 to support county operations (60,000 times .115 – the assessment rate for residential property – times 54.359 divided by 1,000). The county is just one part of the tax bill. Schools, cities and the community college also use property tax to support their budgets.
Taxing entities need to find a revenue neutral rate, which is a levy that would generate in the new year the same tax dollars as the current year, for spending the next year. If they do not have a revenue neutral rate, governments must notify taxpayers that they will exceed that rate and have a public hearing on it. Commissioners decided to notify taxpayers they would exceed that rate and then went to work to lower the mill levy so the county would not exceed that rate, or at least not by much.
Commissioner agreed on Monday to eliminate a $500,000 fund set aside as a jury trial contingency for a quadruple homicide that was resolved by plea before trial. A mill will generate about $141,000 in 2022 so eliminating this reduced the tax levy about 3 mills. Addis said former Commissioners Doug Allen and Fred Vail wanted this fund to be eliminated once the case resolved.
Kinzie told Addis that he was doing what Proehl wanted from the beginning.
“We all win in this one,” Proehl said.
Commissioners scheduled public hearings on the revenue neutral issue at 9:55 a.m. Aug. 31 and for the regular budget at 10 a.m. that day.
In other matters, the commission:
— Canvassed the election results from last Tuesday’s election in Chetopa on the sales tax question. In all 85 ballots were cast in the election but only 83 counted. Two voters turned in blank ballots. The 1/2 cent sales tax passed.
— Approved a payroll change on a 2-1 vote (Addis voted no) as requested by the county attorney’s office that increases the pay for four staffers in excess of the recommended increase by Labette County Commissioners. Commissioners were told by County Counselor Brian Johnson that they can set the budget for the county attorney and other elected officials but elected officials can spend that budget how they want based on an interpretation of state law by the Kansas Supreme Court.
— Agreed that the city of Chetopa could hire a county worker and use a county mower to mow around the city’s sewage lagoons. The city pays county workers as city employees and covers worker’s compensation for them.
— Heard that a separate check would be cut this month of $2,500 for qualifying county employees. The money is part of the recent American Rescue Plan Act and commissioners agreed to pay the bonus to county employees who worked during the pandemic.
— Had a discussion with Edna Mayor Sam Vail about rock chips used for chipping and sealing roads. The city of Edna will hire county workers who will use county equipment to chip and seal roads in Edna this summer, but the rock chips are difficult to find in area quarries. Vail wondered if the county could sell some of its rock chips, but commissioners said the county is not allowed to sell its rock chips to governments. They could give the chips away if they have enough, but that is not known at this time. Vail said he may have to pay mileage for the county dump trucks to get rock chips from quarries out of the county and perhaps out of state.
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