As anticipated, the courtroom of the Jefferson County Courthouse was at capacity the evening of Thursday, August 18, as the Jefferson County Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Committee met to revisit wind turbine regulations.
No decisions were made on when or whether the P&Z Committee will recommend the county lift the moratorium on wind turbine development that has been in place since September 15, 2021.
The moratorium, which has allowed county officials to review regulations governing wind farms and to gather public input, is set to end on April 1, 2023, although Jefferson County Commissioners have indicated it could end sooner.
The meeting lasted nearly four hours as over 150 members of the public were present, and many spoke in support of and opposition to further expansion of wind energy projects in the county.
Among the regulations under consideration are setbacks and decommissioning of turbines.
At a prior meeting of P&Z, one of the members proposed a setback “Five (5) 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.”
But County Attorney Joseph Casson indicated that such a regulation would prohibit wind towers from being constructed.
“After a review of what mapping would do at five times the current height of the towers, there would be no place in the county where there’s access to the electrical grid that one could construct a windmill farm,” he told the Committee. “There are little tiny spots but not enough to complete a project.”
“And our regulations cannot prohibit an authorized use of property,” he continued. “We are to regulate.”
But local attorney Gregory Kratz disagreed with the County Attorney’s assessment. “I believe that the board can put into place more stringent regulations, or any regulations, that they deem are to protect the interest of the community,” he said. “And there’s several ways that that that can be done. And one thing I would suggest that the board do, is do what I believe nearly every other county has done, which is allow waivers or impact easements.”
Kratz currently serves as the attorney for the Village of Jansen but also has a private practice. He did not indicate if he was representing himself or a client at the meeting. FJN asked Kratz via email if he had a client in this matter but, as of press time, he has not responded.
Another attorney, Scott Gropp of Gropp Law and Mediation, LLC, also spoke in support of stricter regulations. Gropp has been retained by the Jefferson County Wind Watchers, a Facebook group that wants to see greater setbacks established.
“One of the things that Joe mentioned during the commissioners meeting was an attorney general opinion that said you couldn’t legislate this out,” Gropp said. “It was requested by Senator Tom Brewer and the Attorney General, on May 29 2009, issued that opinion.”
“In reality, we already know that this is being mapped and laid across Jefferson County,” said Gropp. “Because we know people are already out there signing agreements. We know that wind companies are targeting certain landowners, because that’s what works for their layout. So, it’s disingenuous to say that we don’t already know, or somebody doesn’t know, I might not know it, but that somebody doesn’t know what the plan is.”
FJN reached out to Gropp to ask for a statement but, as of press time, has not received a response.
The proposed height of the turbines for a new wind project in Jefferson County, Big Blue Wind, to be constructed by NextEra Energy but currently on hold due to the moratorium, is 550 feet.
Gropp talked about the possibility of shorter turbines, “At the proposed height that you heard so far, five times makes it difficult, but that doesn’t mean that you couldn’t absorb five times in your regulations.”
Chris Olson, representing NextEra, explained building shorter towers was not an option.
“Turbines are getting larger,” he told the Committee. “You can’t buy a 400-foot turbine anymore for this type generation.”
Olson also pointed out, “The manufacturers don’t make them anymore. Because what you get are taller towers that are allowing for more energy production per tower. Fewer towers to get the same mega-watts.”
Olson said that three times the height of the system was sufficient for public safety and well-being and five times offered no additional benefits.
The P&Z has also been tasked with developing a decommissioning plan, which would ensure there are sufficient funds available to remove wind turbine at the end of their useful life.
P&Z asked the County Attorney and Zoning Administrator John McKee to work up a decommissioning plan for consideration.
In the event there is no decommissioning plan, according to David Levy, attorney for Baird Holm LLP, which represents NextEra, responsibility for decommissioning would fall to the state. If the state must pay for decommissioning, then Nebraska taxpayers would end up footing the bill. County Commissioners have insisted there be a decommissioning plan for wind turbines. Commissioner Mark Schoenrock was not at the P&Z meeting but has said previously, “We’re going to make sure we’ve got it so that Jefferson County taxpayers are not going to pay for decommissioning.”
Levy said NextEra had no objections to a decommissioning plan and noted that decommissioning is writ-ten into the leases with landowners.
Another meeting was scheduled for this week, Thursday, August 25, but that has been postponed to al-low the County Attorney and Zoning Administrator time to develop the decommissioning plan.
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