GUEST COLUMN: Size matters in ongoing debate over wind turbines

Tipton County Indiana (east of Kokomo, IN).

(The following was originally published in the Pharos-Tribune of Logansport, Indiana on Friday, January 26, 2018.)

Paige Woodhouse, Guest Columnist

Logansport Mayor Dave Kitchell recently voiced his opinion on Cass County’s proposed Wind Farm in a Pharos-Tribune column. His stance seems to be based on the financial benefits of the project. While the opinion of a mayor, if based on sound evidence, is certainly something to consider, it should not be used as supportive evidence for this project. Kitchell acknowledged that the city (his jurisdiction) would not directly benefit from the project. He encouraged Cass County residents to blow with the “winds of change.” It seems that when you consider the size and scale of this project, the financial benefits are a mild breeze — but those who would live among the turbines would feel the storm.

Kitchell stated that “Windmills will add to our capacity to generate power, and we have a growing demand for it in Indiana.” While growing demand is a fact, the first part of his statement is misleading. Renewable Energy Systems (RES), the foreign-owned company proposing the project, intends to run an underground web of power lines through Cass and Miami counties, which would hook into an already established grid, sending the power out to the east coast. Many here in Cass County seem to think this project is responsible as it would provide us with clean energy here at home. This is simply false. Cass County will not be using the power generated from these turbines, and we should not be led to believe so, especially by the Mayor.

Kitchell did, however, make a point that is truthful and we should all pay attention. He said, “Windmills represent minimal impact if appropriate setbacks are adopted. Setbacks are a local issue. As Cass County has been more restrictive than other counties in approving setbacks for confined feeding operations, so too can it be restrictive in mitigating noise and any other issues, including falling ice or snow.” Yes, our local officials should create restrictive setbacks in order to protect the safety, health and property values of the citizens that would be affected. The problem, however, is that they have failed to do so and are refusing to consider changes.

Commissioners Jim Sailors, Ralph Anderson and Jeff LeDonne hold all the power with establishing “safe” setbacks in Cass County. Many citizens have voiced their concerns that the current setbacks, established in 2009, are outdated and not applicable to this project. It seems that the “winds of change” could bring the largest turbines in the nation to Cass County. The 150 turbines here would be between 3.6-4.2MW turbines, standing between 660-820 feet tall. This is quite a change from the average 300-400 foot turbines of 2009, when Cass County’s setbacks were established.

Concerned citizens have been asking the commissioners and the planning board — Sailors is the president of both — to revisit the wind ordinance for months, but their requests have been repeatedly ignored and denied. Sailors explained that they have signed a confidentiality agreement with RES preventing them from releasing details to the public until the project is finalized. However, RES does not control the setback details, as Kitchell stated. Those fall under the local jurisdiction of the three commissioners. The only reason the commissioners have offered as to why they are refusing to revisit the wind ordinance is changing the setbacks at this stage would be unfair to landowners as it would essentially stop the project.

Those advocating for safer setbacks have offered a considerable amount of reliable data showing a clear need for updating Cass County’s ordinance. Sailors also explained that they are attempting to keep our ordinance consistent with neighboring White County so that we can be competitive. However, White County’s turbines are half the size (only 1.5-1.65MW) of those proposed here. In addition, White County has nearly 14,000 fewer people and 100 more square miles than Cass County, meaning areas where their turbines are placed are far less populated than here. If our county’s population, square miles and size of turbines are not comparable, how then can our wind ordinance be the same and still be considered safe?

In a simple search for comparable wind energy projects in the U.S., only two can currently be found — Block Island Wind Farm, 3.8 miles off the coast of Rhode Island, and a 15-turbine wind farm off the coast of New York. Each has turbines in the 600-foot range, but they are all in the ocean. New York’s wind farm plans to expand to 200 turbines placed over 256 square miles of ocean, allowing 1.5 miles per turbine. If a 600-foot turbine standing in the ocean requires a 1.5 mile radius around it, why then is it considered safe to place one only 1,500 feet from a home?

Common sense says that our setbacks should be based on the size of our project, and on unbiased safety data. The Minnesota Department of Commerce completed a study in 2011, when the average height of an industrial wind turbine was around 400 feet. It compiled data from 15 experienced wind power nations around the world. The study found that these nations completed their own research on sound and shadow flicker from turbines, and created nationwide regulations establishing safe setbacks. In other words, they found that if the turbines are placed at safe distances, sound and shadow flicker are not an issue for residents.

The study includes data from Denmark, the nation with the highest wind energy capacity per capita, per land area and per GDP in the world. Denmark recommends setbacks of four times the height of a turbine, which would require setbacks of between 2,640-3,280 feet for Cass County. Denmark also has a policy requiring that if someone living within six times the height of a turbine loses a minimum of 1% of their property value due to proximity of a turbine, the wind developer must reimburse that person for their loss.

The Netherlands, the country that manufactures the turbines that RES uses, also recommends setbacks of four times the height of a turbine. They also require sound restrictions of 41 decibels at night and 47 during the day. Cass County currently allows 60 decibels. France has even stricter sound limits of only 25 decibels within residences near turbines. Germany requires setbacks of at least 3,280 feet and sound limits of 35 decibels at night and 45 decibels during the day.

These are entire nations, basing their setbacks on scientific studies, and with turbines half the height of what RES is proposing here. All of this data has been presented to the commissioners and the planning board, yet they have offered no evidence supporting the current wind ordinance. Recently, Fulton County’s commissioners decided that this project was not the right fit for them, after reviewing this same data and listening to their residents.

Sailors admitted that he is “not listening to the people.” It seems that our officials may be enjoying the comfortable breeze blowing from financial promises, and turning their backs on the coming storm. The sheer size of this project should cause anyone to pause and consider more than just money. Elected officials swear an oath to protect the safety, health and welfare of all citizens. It’s time for them to make good on that promise.

Paige Woodhouse lives in Royal Center

Landowners sue Cass County over wind rules

Tipton County Indiana (east of Kokomo, IN).

(The following was originally published online by the Logansport Pharos Tribune of Logansport, Indiana on Wednesday, January 24, 2018.)

Mitchell Kirk, Staff Reporter

Three Cass County property owners are suing the Cass County Commissioners over the county’s wind energy rules.

John L. Baker, Mike Gingerich and William Randall Cole filed the lawsuit against the commissioners on Jan. 17 in Cass Circuit Court. All three own agriculturally zoned land in Cass County, according to their complaint.

The complaint refers to Cass County’s wind energy conversion systems ordinance, which requires wind turbines to be at least 1,000 feet from homes. That means no homes can be constructed within 1,000 feet of wind turbines, which the complaint states “authorizes the taking of private property without compensation being paid.”

Cass County’s wind energy ordinance violates the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, according to the complaint, which states “private property shall not be taken for public use, without just compensation.” It also violates the Indiana Constitution, the complaint continues.

“Under Indiana law, setback requirements must be reasonable since they interfere with the enjoyment of property rights,” the complaint states.

The regulation’s measuring of setbacks from residences instead of property lines is “unreasonable,” according to the complaint, adding the ordinance “should be declared void.”

The complaint seeks a court order declaring Cass County’s wind energy ordinance to be void to the extent of its residential setback rule and that the setback should be measured instead from property lines.

The lawsuit comes as Renewable Energy Systems Americas out of Broomfield, Colorado, pursues a wind turbine project in northern Cass and Miami counties.

“Upon information and belief, the project will be located on property adjacent to the plaintiffs’ properties,” the complaint states.

Cass County Attorney Jeff Stanton responded to the lawsuit in an email Wednesday.

“The county asserts that the setbacks are, in fact, reasonable,” Stanton wrote.

He added Barnes & Thornburg’s Indianapolis office will likely represent Cass County in the case.

Baker, Gingerich and Cole are represented by Syracuse-based Snyder Morgan Federoff & Kuchmay LLP, according to their complaint.

Reach Mitchell Kirk at mitchell.kirk@pharostribune.com or 574-732-5130

(Cass) Wind opponents: petition exceeds 1,300

Tipton County Indiana (east of Kokomo, IN).

(The following was originally published in the “Pharos~Tribune” online of Logansport, Indiana on Monday, December 18, 2017.)

Company maintains project will benefit county through jobs, taxes

Mitchell Kirk Staff reporter

Opponents of a proposed wind turbine project in northern Cass County submitted a petition to leaders with over 1,300 signatures Monday.

It was the second consecutive Cass County Commissioners meeting to draw a crowd that spilled out into the hallway, many of them wearing buttons illustrating their opposition to a project aiming to bring as many as 150 wind turbines to Adams, Bethlehem, Boone and Harrison townships.

Renewable Energy Systems, or RES, an international company headquartered in England with a U.S. headquarters in Colorado, is behind the project.

During the public comments portion of Monday’s meeting, Dave Redweik gave commissioners a petition he said contained 1,308 signatures from Cass County residents and landowners requesting officials change the county’s rules regulating wind turbines.

Among the desired changes are requiring wind turbines to be 2,640 feet, or a half mile, from property lines, Redweik said.

He and others at Monday’s meeting reiterated their qualms with Cass County basing it’s wind rules on White County’s, whose turbines are about half the height of those being proposed locally.

Current Cass County rules call for wind turbines to be the length of a turbine blade from property lines.

Brad Lila, development director for RES, said by phone Monday that the company has yet to choose a turbine model for the project, but maintained the turbines will stand about 600 feet tall and not exceed 700 feet. He added RES’ setbacks for the project will be 1.1 times a turbine’s height from nonparticipating property lines. That height will be measured to the tip of a blade pointing straight up, Lila also said.

Cass County Commissioners President Jim Sailors repeated after Monday’s meeting that there are no plans to revisit the county’s wind ordinance, especially boosting property line setbacks to 2,640 feet, which he said “would essentially stop the project” and would be unfair to landowners in favor of the project.

Cass County regulations also require commercial wind turbines to be 1,000 feet from residential dwellings as well. The ordinance does not put a limit on turbine heights but indicates heights have to be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Ashly Berry cited a 2011 Minnesota Department of Commerce study that reported stricter wind turbine rules in countries across the world. For instance, the study reported rules in Denmark requiring wind turbines to have setbacks of four times their height, decibel limits ranging from 37 to 44 and that homes should not be exposed to more than 10 hours of shadow flicker per year.

Cass County’s wind ordinance limits noise to 60 decibels and does not address shadow flicker.

Leslie Murray said infrasound, or low-frequency sound, caused by wind turbines that opponents have attributed to health issues should also be addressed in local regulations. She added nonparticipating landowners should be able to request all wind turbine sound measurements at the cost of the developer.

“Ignoring this information is dangerous for our citizens, it’s dangerous for our community and if there’s no clear scientific consensus about the safety, I think the county must err on the side of caution and that we need stricter regulations on sound limits and we need significant setbacks to prevent this type of problem in the future,” Murray said.

Tia Justice, a storm chaser, raised concerns over effects tornadoes would have on the turbines while Wayne Haselby questioned how turbines’ vibrations would affect natural gas underground.

Mark Babb was the meeting’s only attendee to express being in favor of the project, adding he’s explored getting a wind turbine on his property in the past.

Linda Franklin said commissioners should recuse themselves from being involved in the project if they or any of their relatives stand to benefit from it.

Sailors said after the meeting that he does not own land in the proposed project area but that he may have a distant cousin who does.

Cass County Commissioner Ralph Anderson said he does not own land in the proposed area either and that none of his relatives do to his knowledge.

Cass County Commissioner Jeff LeDonne said he too does not own any property where wind turbines are being considered, nor do any of his relatives.

Attendees repeated calls for a public meeting where officials and project stakeholders can educate the public on their points of view and share information on the projected financial impact.

Sailors said after the meeting that confidentiality has to be maintained while negotiations continue between RES and the county’s hired legal counsel. Once talks conclude, more information will be able to be shared, he added.

Those negotiations include addressing how roads will be kept up as RES transports the project’s heavy equipment, Sailors said.

Lila said in his phone interview that there will also be a plan with funds set aside to ensure the turbines can be safely decommissioned.

He added the project will employ 30 to 50 full-time positions.

“We will likely pay hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes that will benefit the local schools, the local communities,” Lila said. “We will improve infrastructure … We will pay millions and millions of dollars to landowners in lease agreements.”

Reach Mitchell Kirk at mitchell.kirk@pharostribune.com or 574-732-5130

WINDSTORM: Proposed wind turbines spur debate

A wind turbine dwarfs a nearby home near Curtisville, southeast of Kokomo on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017. Staff photo by Kevin Burkett

A wind turbine dwarfs a nearby home near Curtisville, southeast of Kokomo on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017. Staff photo by Kevin Burkett

(The following article was originally published by the “Pharos~Tribune” of Logansport, Indiana on Thursday, December 14, 2017.)

Setbacks, firefighting, health of residents among issues stirred up

Mitchell Kirk Staff reporter

The wind is kicking up in a debate over a project that would dot northern Cass County with energy-producing towers.

Opponents say local rules that would govern the proposed wind turbines are weak. They claim the turbines create health issues. They wonder how the turbines will affect aerial application on farm fields and if local firefighters are equipped to handle a blaze atop one. They criticize what they call county officials’ lack of accessibility on the issue.

Renewable Energy Systems, or RES, an international company headquartered in England with a U.S. headquarters in Colorado, is pursuing as many as 150 wind turbines about 600 feet tall in Adams, Bethlehem, Boone and Harrison townships in Cass County. RES also wants to erect turbines in Fulton and Miami counties, although Fulton County Commissioners took a stance against the project last month when they voted to remove wind turbine rules from the county’s zoning ordinance.

Call for setback reform

Rules in Cass County require wind turbines to be a distance of 1.1 times their height from property lines, 1,000 feet from residences and 1,500 feet from incorporated limits. Cass County officials based the rules on White County’s.

But the White County-based Meadow Lake Wind Farm’s turbines stand half as tall as the ones being proposed for Cass County. Because RES’ towers would be taller, setbacks should be farther, critics of the Cass County wind project say.

That would require approval from the county plan commission and commissioners.

Jim Sailors, president of both bodies, said there are no plans to change the setbacks, maintaining the ones currently in effect are safe for 600-foot turbines.

Wind at West Central

The campus hosting West Central School Corp.’s about 775 K-12 students in Francesville has had a 321-foot wind turbine on it since 2012. It helps with the corporation’s energy costs and at one point was part of the curriculum offered there.

Don Street, superintendent of West Central School Corp., said the wind turbine stands about 400 yards, or 1,200 feet from the campus complex.

In the over five years the wind turbine has been on campus, Street said no students or faculty have attributed health problems to it.

Vibrations cannot be felt from the turbine, Street continued, adding occasionally the blades create a sound he described as a light whoosh. Some shadow flicker occurs depending on the location of the sun and which direction the wind turbine’s blades are facing, he also said.

Street said the turbine’s distance from the complex is far enough to quell concerns about ice being launched off blades and blades falling off.

“It’s been a positive experience for West Central,” Street said of the turbine.

North Newton School Corp., Tippecanoe Valley School Corp., Northwestern School Corp. in Howard County and Shenandoah School Corp. all have commercial wind turbines on their campuses as well.

Sharing airspace

Monticello-based Townsend Aviation provides aerial spraying, seeding and fertilizer application services. Brian Townsend, a pilot with the company, said a wind turbine in a farm field is an obstacle for a pilot, but one they can identify and avoid.

Pilots have to be just as aware of wind turbines in adjacent fields, he said. Aerial application planes fly below the height of turbine blades while distributing, he continued, but need to rise to a higher altitude to turn around for their next pass. It takes a half mile to turn around, Townsend went on to say, and at 150 mph it’s even more important to be aware of any tall objects in the vicinity.

How wind turbines are placed affects an airplane’s navigability too, Townsend said, adding a straight row of them is more manageable than a random cluster.

Townsend Aviation also uses helicopters for aerial application, which Townsend said are slower and more maneuverable than an airplane. He said he company often uses helicopters when applying near wind turbines.

High-altitude fire

Critics of the proposed wind project in Cass County have expressed concerns about how local fire departments would respond to a fire 600 feet in the air, should flames ever break out atop a wind turbine.

Royal Center Volunteer Fire Department Chief Ed Schroder and Harrison Township Volunteer Fire Department Chief Jim Musselman said neither of their departments are equipped to handle a blaze that high.

Ty Rowan, a firefighter with the Cass County Fire District, said he wasn’t sure if his department’s equipment could handle such a fire, but assumed wind turbine owners would provide equipment and training to do so.

A RES representative did not return a request for comment.

Scheduling conflicts

The Cass County Commissioners meet at 1 p.m. on the first Monday of each month and 9 a.m. on the third Monday of each month in the Commissioners Hearing Room on the second floor of the Cass County Government Building, 200 Court Park.

One of their monthly meetings was formerly at 6 p.m., but the commissioners changed it due to drawing public attendances of little to none.

Northern Cass County residents have expressed a desire for meetings to be scheduled outside typical work hours to allow more people to attend.

Sailors said there’s no plans to do so.

“We’re not going to change our meetings from day to night just because of one issue,” he said.

Fulton County hosted an evening meeting last month with presentations on the project from a financial adviser, attorney, RES representative, county planning official and a resident representing opponents of the project. Attendees were able to submit questions and make comments.

Sailors said Cass County “will never have” a meeting like that, adding those who attended the Fulton County meeting did not listen to information shared in favor of the project and only listened to information against it.

Reach Mitchell Kirk at mitchell.kirk@pharostribune.com or 574-732-5130