While a moratorium preventing new wind turbines from being erected in Jefferson County has been extended, the campaign on both sides of the controversial issue of wind farms is continuing.
A meeting was held at the Jefferson County Courthouse on Tuesday, March 22. County commissioners voted unanimously to extend a moratorium preventing consideration of any new wind farm applications for up to a year, ending on April 1, 2023. That moratorium has already been in place for over six months.
However, commissioners also indicated the moratorium could end sooner.Commissioners first established the moratorium on September 15, 2021, for the purpose of reviewing and revising regulations governing wind farms in Jefferson County.
The moratorium was enacted to respond to changing technology. Wind turbines can now be considerably taller than those currently existing at Steele Flats, a wind farm in Steele City built several years ago.
The Planning and Zoning Committee was given the job of recommending changes to those regulations. It was then up to the commissioners to approve them. However, commissioners have stated they are not satisfied with the recommendations and intend Planning and Zoning to revisit the issue.
Setbacks in particular are an issue. The recommendation from Planning and Zoning was five times the height of the total system from any occupied primary residence of a non-participating property owner.
A number of landowners wish to see the setback longer. However, Jefferson County Attorney Joseph Casson spoke at the meeting and he issued a warning to commissioners, suggesting the county could be in legal jeopardy if they make the regulations to restrictive, “And I’m saying to you, you can’t use the regulations to legislate wind towers out of existence in Jefferson County.” Casson said, “When you draw a map and see what five times setback does to the county, you’ll see that in essence, it is prohibiting the construction of wind turbines anywhere in the county, because as we know, it’s not a single wind turbine, they are in a series and you have to look for an area that could adapt that series of towers.”
County Commissioner Mark Schoenrock said, “So I do not believe that we should consider this at this time. I think this needs to be reopened up and we need to go back to an appropriate process with the involvement of the people before we take any action on this because this, this right here, I think is at the heart of the matter, what we establish as setback.”
“I think you’re probably right, Mark. There’s a situation of legality. Basically, if we pass this, we will be prohibiting, not regulating,” said Commissioner Gale Pohlmann. “We have to realize what our County Attorney has told us. We’ve had legal advice on that. And I don’t know either what it should be.”
Commissioner Michael Dux concurred, “I don’t know where the heights should be. But I don’t believe it should be five.”
Another issue is shadow flicker, the result of a moving shadow caused by the rotating turbine blades. The recommended allowance for shadow flicker is 30 hours in a year. Some people have requested no flicker at all. Casson said, “The shadow flicker, again, was a balancing act. You could have prohibited any shadow flicker. And then that would prohibit wherever there might be shadow flicker installation of any towers. That’s prohibiting the use of the property.”
Then there is decommissioning of wind turbines. Some counties require wind farm companies to establish a fund to ensure there is money available to cover the expenses of removing wind turbines when they reach the end of their useful life. However, Planning and Zoning recommended no regulations at all. In the event of a wind farm company’s failure to decommission turbines, the State of Nebraska would take on the responsibility, rather than leaving it up to the county.
The Commissioners opposed this plan. Schoenrock said, “I feel very strongly about this one. There is no way that I want an unelected bureaucrat in Lincoln to be determining what our decommissioning standards are here in Jefferson County. There’s no way. This has to be with the involvement of the people.”
Opponents of wind turbine requested that the moratorium be extended and regulations reviewed. However, they did not get everything they asked for. Most notably, Commissioners voted to approve a 50 decibel limit for sound from turbines, two to one.
In a rare show of dissension, Schoenrock voted against approving a 50 decibel limit, “I am not fine with it. I have read a lot about a lesser standard that would be more desirable for human activity. Look, the quandary that I have is, I don’t know what, what it should be.”
After the meeeting, Commissioner Pohlmann recently took a tour of the Steele Flats Wind Farm. Pohlamm told FJN, “After we had made our decision on Tuesday I felt more comfortable about the invite and wanted the opportunity to be right up close to the tower.”
Pohlmann said, “As we stood outside the building we basically could not hear the turbine and were able to talk amongst ourselves quite easily. We arrived at the turbine, and after getting out of the pickup the first thing we heard was the fans running that were keeping the supporting electrical equipment cool both inside and outside the turbine. As far as sound from the blades themselves that was very minimal as we were standing directly under the turbine and I would not classify it as noise!”
After, Pohlmann visited a second tower on his own, “I decided to stop at another turbine to check the sound levels. The opposition claim that when the wind company is challenged on the noise levels they have the capabilities to make adjustments and lower the sound levels, so I thought I would check to see if they had possibly done that at our initial turbine visit. Well everything was the same as our first tower.”
While opponents of the wind farms succeeded in getting the moratorium extended, they are continuing their campaign. A group of landowners concerned about proposed changes to regulations governing wind farms in Jefferson County have retained the services of attorney Scott Gropp of Gropp Law and Mediation, LLC, a law firm based out of Wilber. Gropp is currently under contract with the county as the Public Defender. FJN contacted Gropp and he indicated there is no conflict of interest that arises from his contract with the county.
Danielle Schwab, an administrator of Jefferson County Wind Watchers, a Facebook group was created June 30, 2021, has set up a GoFundMe (an online fundraising platform) to raise money cover legal fees.
Schwab said, “We have an immediate need for $5,000 to fulfill the attorney’s retainer but will need additional funds as we proceed (with an estimate of $50,000). This estimate is based on the attorney’s experience in neighboring counties when facing the same company.”
Backers of wind energy are also working to drum up further support. NextEra Energy Resources, the Steele Flats wind farm, recently held a series of open houses at their facility to meet with local landowers.
Pohlamm said, “Yet there is a group that feel we need green energy and we can benefit financially by having wind farms in the county. Somehow we need to get both sides together to work out a solution acceptable to both sides. That is the challenge for the upcoming year!”
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