A group of Jefferson County residents is hoping to make wind regulations more strict amidst fear of a potential commercial wind farm in the area.
Jefferson County Wind Watchers was organized by Jenna Wietzki, a rural Plymouth woman concerned about wind turbines potentially being built in eastern Jefferson County.
“The taxes are low and there’s a nice school in Plymouth, so we wanted to live the dream out here in the country, have horses and wanted to raise our kids in the country,” she said. “…The biggest thing I think is that we want to give everybody a voice, whether they live in town or are big landowners. That’s our goal. With the group, we’ve been aiming to inform people.”
The group has a Facebook page and also hosts regular meetings.
Wietzki started the group after learning that NextEra Energy has an active special use permit to build turbines in the Jansen and Plymouth areas. NextEra’s website also details a proposal, the Big Blue Wind Project, that calls for up to 90 wind turbines capable of generating 300 megawatts of energy.
But Jefferson County Planning and Zoning Administrator John McKee said people shouldn’t get worked up about the project yet.
He said the special use permit in question was approved in 2013 – at that time Jefferson County didn’t include sunset clauses in its permits so it remains active – and he’s unaware of any new plans from NextEra to actually construct turbines in the area.
“A lot’s being written into it that doesn’t really need to be,” he said. “I don’t know what they’re going to do. It’s not going to be a large facility. Part of me says I don’t think they will pursue that. Being it’s public, we had to make sure people knew that was on the books, whether the company pursues it or not is their decision.”
McKee said regardless of what NextEra has on its website regarding the plan and a proposal for 90 turbines, that’s not what the special use permit includes. The permit was for a 45-turbine operation with towers not to exceed 440 feet tall. Anything more than that would require a new or additional special use permit the company would have to apply for.
“They cannot exceed what that permit was at that time,” McKee said. “I think that’s a misunderstanding or assumption that gets people worked up. That project is for what was applied for at that time, nothing else. We have discussed that with the wind company. I’m not budging at all, this is what they applied for, nothing more.”
Getting a special use permit is a lengthy process requiring multiple public hearings and approval from both the planning and zoning commission and Jefferson County commissioners. And if the Jefferson County Wind Watchers have their way, getting a special use permit for commercial wind energy will become even more difficult.
Jefferson County is in the process of revising its wind regulations, similar to the multi-year process Gage County recently completed, and many are calling for more strict regulations. Some of those changes have already been approved, with more being proposed.
A lower decibel level limit for turbines has already been approved, reducing the acceptable noise level from 60 to 50 decibels.
Currently in discussions is increasing the setback requirement for commercial turbines from non-participating residences. McKee said setbacks are currently at ¼ mile, and one proposal is to make that a percentage of the tower height rather than a fixed distance as advancements result in larger towers.
Wietzki said the wind watcher group is asking for one mile setbacks from property lines of non-participating property lines – non-participating property owners are those who don’t have contracts with the wind company to let them use land – and three mile setbacks from churches, villages, schools, learning centers, wildlife areas and recreational areas.
“These are villages that still have a say,” Wietzki said, referencing Jansen and Plymouth. “They pay taxes in this county and live here. The villages are going to have a huge impact on our movement because they don’t want this that close to town.”
Wietzki added that viewsheds for Homestead National Historical Park and Rock Creek Station could also be impacted by wind turbines in Jefferson County.
Another issue the wind watchers group hope to have addressed is a better plan for decommissioning towers once they’ve outlived their usefulness.
“The biggest thing is people want to have a say and we are the ones that remain after the company moves on,” Wietzki said. “We have a right to have a voice in this issue, and a huge issue is decommissioning. We will be pushing for a thoughtful, well planned decommissioning plan. We don’t want our grandkids stuck with these things. Who is going to take them down? Who is going to pay for that? It’s a huge deal to take them down. We’re really going to zone in on that issue.”
Jefferson County officials have approved a moratorium on wind permits and will not accept any new permits for commercial wind energy while the regulations are being reevaluated. That moratorium is set to expire in April 2023, but could be removed if rules for turbines are decided on earlier.
In the meantime, Jefferson County Wind Watchers asks those interested to join the Facebook group and attend meetings.
“In the planning group, we’ve been meeting on a regular basis and have 30-40 in our smaller group that have been meeting, planning and strategizing on how to fight this,” Wietzki said. “…Our main objective is to inform the public of the way they sneak projects in there, they don’t want us to know.”
Additionally, McKee offered that anyone with questions about Jefferson County’s regulations regarding wind can contact his office to discuss them.
“The handful of people that have called my office and asked how the process works, after I spend sometimes upwards of an hour on the phone with them, they’re more comfortable with how the regulations are,” he said. “It’s been an educational process but I have not fielded very many calls. It’s not cut and dry. There’s a stack of stuff they have to go for before I can even issue a permit for a tower.”
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