OSWEGO – The Labette County Commission on Monday voted 2-1 to refuse to sign any road agreement with any industrial wind turbine developer.
The vote came after Commissioner Terry Weidert reviewed with commissioners what he heard from constituents in a series of four town hall style meetings in his district. He said of the people who spoke about wind turbines in the four communities, all but one opposed industrial wind development.
Toward the end of his review, Weidert made a motion that Labette County would refuse to sign any road use agreement with RWE Renewables or any other industrial wind entity. Commissioner Lonie Addis seconded the motion. “Because I strongly agree with it.”
The vote: Weidert and Addis voted yes; Commissioner Cole Proehl voted no.
RWE Renewables is a German utility that is looking to develop a wind harnessing facility in western Labette County, from south of Big Hill Lake to north of Edna and west of Altamont. The company has leased 186 tracts of land totaling 24,303 acres, according to filings in the Register of Deeds Office as of earlier this year.
Weidert said he’s fine with RWE signing landowners up for leases, but he has no interest in talking to RWE about an agreement on roads and bridges. He asked his fellow commissioners what they’ve heard from constituents as far as supporting or not supporting wind development. Proehl said the people he speaks to are 70% for and 30% against turbines. Addis said his constituency is about 50-50 on turbines. Commissioners noted that RWE leases are expanding across the county, even south of U.S. 166.
Parsons City Commissioner Tom Shaw who attended the meeting said he doesn’t hear a lot from city residents about the turbines but those he does hear from are 5-to-1 opposed.
“If it’s not in your backyard, it’s not really an issue,” Weidert said.
RWE has been relatively quiet with the commission since before the December recall vote of Commissioner Brian Kinzie, who supported wind development. Addis said he assumes RWE is waiting on his commission seat to be filled after the next election. Addis has indicated he will not seek re-election but that he would not support a candidate who supports wind development.
Weidert said of the other commissioners he’s contacted in the state, only those in Coffey County seem to have received a good return from the wind developer. In other counties, the original developer is no longer overseeing the wind development.
“There are pitfalls,” Proehl said.
Proehl said state senators heard from those concerned about health effects of siting wind turbines close to homes at a legislative hearing he attended in Topeka. He said he’s worried about the health of Labette County residents who already have a lower life expectancy than people who live in some western Kansas counties. He repeated that he’s not 100% for or against wind development and wants to find out what’s offered before making a decision.
Weidert said he wants to support the sheriff, police and the county attorney to reduce crime and improve the county.
Proehl said wind development is an economic development tool that could bring money to the county.
When asked what the decision means about not signing a road use agreement, Weidert said: “That’s where I’m at right now?”
He said other agreements with RWE would be assessed one at a time. He’s not received any communication from RWE and neither has Addis.
When asked if a wind company could start building turbines without a road use agreement, County Counselor Brian Johnson said yes. But he said the company would be subject to heavy fines related to road conditions in the county.
“The county cannot stop interstate commerce. But they can take action to reasonably protect and provide for the maintenance and security of the roads within the county,” Johnson said.
He didn’t know what the potential fines could be without doing research.
Weidert was asked how not having a road use agreement would benefit his constituents.
“I think it’s a start. It should stop them from just coming in,” Weidert said, explaining that there was a lot of concern of wind developers moving equipment in at night and starting construction.
Weidert said he would like the commission to hire an attorney with experience in wind development. He suggested Patrick Hughes of Wichita. Proehl was concerned about Hughes because he represents residents who are suing the county over actions and issues that came up when Kinzie was on the commission.
Johnson reminded commissioners that the way to end the issue of wind development is to implement countywide zoning. The process could take a year and be costly. Any zoning regulations would not apply to agricultural land. They would only apply to commercial and industrial land.
“If you want to stop this, the correct way, I strongly advise, is zoning,” Johnson said.
The county has three zoned areas now: Big Hill Lake, Great Plains Industrial Park and the three-mile zone around Parsons.
Asked if his constituents mentioned zoning at his recent meetings, Weidert said no. He said he’s not really interested in pursuing zoning either.
“That’s why it’s a difficult subject,” he said.
Weidert said other topics of concern from constituents at meetings in Edna, Altamont, Mound Valley and Dennis were:
— The county commission meeting time of 9 a.m. on Mondays. Some have trouble getting off work to attend the meetings. Some suggested the county should livestream the meetings as other commissions do. The meetings are during the day to accommodate county employees who have to meet with commissioners.
— Road conditions were another concern. Part of that concern related to 19000 Road that goes to Big Hill Lake. The speed limit is 30 mph and it used to be 55 mph when the road was gravel. The agreement to get the grant money to rebuild the lake road required the speed limit to be set at 30 mph.
— Constituents were also asking questions about Great Plains Industrial Park and the perceived lack of transparency about its operations. A related question was the need for $1.2 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding going to Great Plains for the water project. The money would leverage another $4.6 million in grant funds, if approved, that would give Great Plains and the city of Parsons redundant water supplies in the event of an emergency by connecting the two water systems. This would also provide Great Plains up to 1.8 million gallons of water a day to help recruit industries.
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