County OKs consultants – Financial, legal advisers in use by 3 counties for wind energy help

(The following was published in “The Rochester Sentinel” of Rochester, IN on Wednesday, Sep. 20, 2017.)

BY WESLEY DEHNE
Staff Writer, The Sentinel

Fulton County Commissioners on Monday entered into contracts with H.J. Umbaugh & Associates and the law firm Barnes & Thornburg ahead of making a decision on a proposed wind farm in the county.

“Umbaugh is probably the more important contract to address right out of the gate here because their services are, I think, what the commissioners and the public are really wanting to know,” County Attorney Greg Heller said, adding Umbaugh & Associates is tasked with determining the financial impact of a proposed wind farm. “I think, really, that Barnes and Thornburg is going to be more on the back end if things start going forward.”

The renewable energy company RES has been contacting landowners about possiblelease agreements for a wind farm that would bring 300 wind turbines to south Fulton County, northwest Miami County and northeast Cass County.

In Fulton County there could be as many as 100 wind turbines south of County Road 400 South.

Fees for H.J. Umbaugh & Associates’ services range from $35,000-$60,000. Barnes & Thornburg fees are $40,000-$75,000. Those are to be split between three counties, Fulton, Cass and Miami, which already have signed the contracts.

Heller said those baseline fee estimates could not be exceeded by the consultants without further approval by county officials.

Lida Moeller, who owns land in the proposed project area and is vocally against wind farm development in south Fulton County, asked: “Who ultimately pays for those fees?”

“If it doesn’t go anywhere, we’re going to have to pay for it. I mean, that’s a given,” Commissioner Rick Ranstead responded.

He was corrected by Fulton Economic Development Corp. Director Terry Lee who said, “That’s actually not a given.”

Commissioner Steve Metzger, who is tasked with following and assessing the proposed project, said RES would reimburse the county up to $25,000, whether the project is greenlighted or not.

“We’ve had a lot of questions come to us on this project, and we don’t have answers yet and that’s why we need Umbaugh,” Commission President Bryan Lewis said. “We need to get this process started, so that we can have answers to give you.”

Rhonda Smith, who also owns land in the proposed project area, asked commissioners why consulting and law firms were being funded when “nobody seems to want the wind farm.”

“I would think that everybody would want to see the economic impact that it could give this county … maybe some people would say, ‘This is good for us,’” Lewis responded. “I like to have all the information out there so people can understand the total impact that this could do for our county, especially the southern part of the county – Caston School, Fulton and Kewanna.”

Wayne Township resident Nancy Crow fired back, “Do you know what it can do to us?” before handing commissioners a list of landowners in Wayne Township opposed to wind farm development.

“We can go through all this process, but ultimately, it’s up to you guys. If you guys do not want this, you do not have to sign,” Lewis said. “If they [RES] can’t get the percentage that makes it economical for them to do the project, then they’re not going to move forward.”

Lewis said he’d like to have a public meeting, perhaps at Caston School Corp., once Umbaugh & Associates has completed its assessment.

“It’s still going to go through another layer of scrutiny … before it’s ultimately approved,” Heller said. He noted the Fulton County Area Plan Commission still has to vote on proposed amendments to the county’s wind ordinance and commissioners have 90 days to approve, reject or amend the amendments.

The plan commission’s meeting is 7 p.m. Monday at the Fulton County Office Building.

Heller also noted that before the wind farm gets approval, RES has to prepare an economic agreement, decommissioning plan, drainage plan, and road use and road improvement plan for county officials’ consideration.

“I think they should be commended that they are encouraging this type of dialogue at this stage of the game,” Heller said of commissioners after about an hour of discussion. “I don’t know what’s happened in Miami and Cass County, but I’m willing to guess it wasn’t this.”

“No offense to Cass and Miami County, but I don’t really care what they’re doing,” Lewis said.

“I just want to know what’s good for us. We’re not going to make everybody happy. There are people that want it, and there are people that don’t want it,” Lewis said. “That’s personally why I want more facts. I want to know what it can do for us and for the southern part of the county.”

Russ Phillips, a former Caston school principal who lives in the proposed wind farm area, came to the meeting with a set of questions. He asked: “What positive effects conceivably could there be other than money?”

He thanked Lewis for visiting a wind farm in Tipton County and suggested commissioners take their time in considering the proposed amendments to the wind ordinance.

“In my own view, personally, I think it would be most unwise if you commissioners approve the first time it’s on your agenda,” he said, adding the public should be given more time to weigh in.

Phillips also suggested the proposed amendments be made available on the county’s website.

“With regards to government and citizen participation, convenience has a lot to do with how engaged the citizenship will be and if it’s online, that’s a step in the direction of being pretty convenient.”

Lewis said he’d talk with Area Plan Director Casi Cowles about getting the ordinance and its proposed amendments online.

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