Like much of the rest of Nebraska, proposed wind farms in Jefferson County have brought strong opinions and high emotions from both sides of the issue. This was evident during a hearing on Tuesday, March 1, 2022, which lasted more than four hours. The hearing was held in the courtroom of the Jefferson County Courthouse because the regular meeting room of the Jefferson County Board of Commissioners was not large enough to accommodate the more than 200 attendees. The hearing was held to allow for public input on proposed changes to wind farm regulations. Over 70 citizens spoke.
Last year, commissioners voted unanimously to institute a six-month moratorium on wind farm applications, feeling it was necessary to review and possibly revise the policies that govern the placing of wind turbines within the county, due in large part to changing technology. Commissioners have expressed that, while the new regulations should protect non-participating landowners, they should not be so restrictive as to make new wind turbines prohibitive for those who do wish to participate.
“We, as commissioners, have been contacted by literally hundreds of people in the last week,” said county commission chairman Mark Schoenrock at the start of the hearing. “There are strong feelings on both sides of this issue and whatever we, the board, decide today, we would ask that we don’t let this divide our community.”
Schoenrock also addressed rumors that commissioners would personally benefit from proposed wind farms, “We, your board of commissioners, none of us has any personal, financial interest in any decision we make. None of us has any land that would be considered for wind energy and we don’t have any personal financial interest in this.”
Planning and Zoning Committee
The Jefferson County Planning and Zoning Committee held a series of meetings in January and February of this year to discuss a variety of concerns, including noise levels, shadow flicker, setbacks and decommissioning. At the end of each meeting, new rules recommended were voted on and approved by the committee.
Unlike this hearing, those meetings were sparsely attended by the public.
A major issue during those meetings was setbacks. Previous regulations for setbacks required a wind turbine to be at least one and one-tenth (1.1) times the height of the total system from any property line of non-participating property owners. At a meeting on Thursday, January 6, the committee voted to change the setback to three times the height of the total system from any occupied primary residence of a non-participating property owner, measured from an exterior wall of the occupied primary residence.
A hearing was held on February 10, again to give the public the opportunity for input. However, after the hearing was closed and the public was no longer able to speak, the committee voted to change the setbacks to five times the height of the structure, which is estimated to be more than half a mile, depending on the height of the turbine.
Bruce Weise, chairman of the planning and zoning committee, spoke about that February 10 meeting, “When the public comment period was closed, we went into a bait-and-switch mode, with no one objecting to the three times setbacks at the hearing. Some members of the zoning decided to increase the setbacks 40 percent. Members of the public came to me after the adjournment and said if they had known it was going to be five times they would have adjusted objecting to it and it was then too late.”
Another issue Weise took with the proposed changes was the addition of the term, “occupied structures,” which he feels is too vague, “Even if a structure is only a four-by-four garden shed and has a door and someone walks into it once a year, it would fit the definition. Nowhere else in our regs have we used such a loose term for this definition.”
Pros and Cons
While people for and against wind farms spoke, those that were opposed outnumbered the supporters. Ryan Meyer lives Beatrice, although he indicated he farms in both Jefferson and Gage Counties. He asked, “Can I have those who are not in favor of wind turbines and who are requesting changes to the proposed zoning regulations please stand.”
More than two thirds of the attendees stood up.
This contrasts with the previous planning and zoning hearings. Most of those attendees spoke in support of wind farms.
Outside the County
Commissioners have expressed concerns about the number of people who have involved themselves in the process who are not residents of Jefferson County and who do not have property in the county. Several individuals at the hearing identified themselves as from the City of Lincoln or Gage County in particular.
FJN spoke to commissioner Michael Dux days after the meeting. He said, “Well, what’s disappointing to me is that when you have everybody from out of county.”
Weise said at the hearing, “Commissioner Shoenrock, you stood in front of the zoning committee and said that wind regulations need to work for both sides. The way they’re set up with now five times, it eliminates at least three parcels for me. This whole can of worms was opened up by a commissioner from Gage County that came to you and said that ours wasn’t strict enough. She’s not elected by us. I’m sorry. We need you as elected officials, not someone from Gage County, to move forward with what has already been proven successful for nine years in Steele City.”
There is currently a wind farm in Jefferson County called Steele Flats.
At the beginning of the hearing, commissioners pleaded for civility during the course of this decision. While most citizens have taken this request to heart, not everyone has.
There is a Facebook group created last year called “Jefferson County Alliance for Informed Wind Decisons (sic),” which as of press time has 176 members. According to a post on that page, “It has been brought to my attention that the Commissioners have received some sort of threatening emails. This is a completely public group and we do not know eveyone (sic) on here or their intentions but if we find out who is responsible you will be blocked immediately.”
FJN reached out to Commissioners. According to Michael Dux, he has not received any “physical threats.”
However, Dux said he had received approximately a dozen phone calls. Not physical threats, but Dux said, “I would call it a threat when they say they’re not going to get along with their neighbors, you know, if they’re on opposite sides.”
Dux added, “They’re all from the people that are against it (wind farms). I haven’t had any anybody that’s in favor of that, given any kind of threats like that.”
Dux made it clear he was only speaking for himself and not the other commissioners. According to Jefferson County Sheriff Nick Georgie, “Nothing has been reported to the Sheriff’s Office about any threats to the commissioners.”
FJN has reached out to the administrator of the Facebook group but, as of press time, has not received a response.
Many said they only learned about the issue in the last week or two, despite much advertising by the County, announcements on social media and several stories in FJN over a period of several months..
Dustin Fairley, secretary of the Planning and Zoning Committee, said, “Partially it’s the public’s fault. It’s partially our fault. We didn’t have it advertised correctly. Honestly, nobody really gets the Fairbury Journal-News anymore, or reads it that thoroughly.”
What Happens Next?
The final decision is now in the hands of Commissioners. Jefferson County. Attorney Joseph Casson advised Commissioners they have three options: to accept the changes as recommended by the Planning and Zoning Committee, to modify the recommended changes or to discard the recommendations altogether and leave the regulations as they are.
Like many other controversial subjects, there is a lot of information available online about wind farms. There is also a lot of misinformation and disinformation. Many of the individuals who spoke also provided commissioners with pages and pages of researched. One person brought six large binders for commissioners to review. FJN has not seen these pages or determined their accuracy. Likewise, much of what was said at the meeting also has not been verified by FJN.
Commissioners will be holding a meeting on Tuesday, March 22, to further discuss the issue.
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