MidAmerican gets go-ahead for Phase Two of Beaver Creek wind project

MidAmerican’s promised setbacks and limits on flicker and noise put in writing as conditions of use

The first 78 wind turbines in Greene County drew very little public opposition, but MidAmerican Energy’s plan to more than double that number in 2018 drew heated discussion at a public hearing Dec. 21.

The hearing was held by the county board of adjustment to consider a conditional use permit for 85 more wind turbines in Hardin, Junction and Paton townships.

Wind turbines are listed as a “conditional” use of agricultural land under Greene County zoning. The only reference in the zoning ordinance is to a 1,000-foot setback from a residence. The role of the board of adjustment is to review the permit application and set any other conditions of use beyond the required setback.

Mike Holden, Dan Tronchetti, Jack Lint, Amy Milligan and Nancy Hanaman comprise the board of adjustment. They were also on the board last February, when a public hearing to consider the conditional use permit for the first 41 turbines (Phase One, as MidAmerican now calls it) drew about a dozen persons and lasted less than an hour. A few questions were asked about agricultural drainage and the particulars of receiving payment for easements, and there was very little concern expressed.

More than 30 members of the public attended the hearing last week on Phase Two, with several of them speaking about their concerns regarding noise, shadow flicker and property values. The hearing lasted two hours and 40 minutes. The board of adjustment approved the conditional use permit, but only after adding as conditions of the permit setbacks greater than what is required by county zoning and limits for noise and shadow flicker.

Brady Evans, MidAmerican project developer, said that Phase One will create $38 million in additional property tax for the county over the next 40 years. Phase Two will create another $67 million, for a total of $105 million in property tax over 40 years. MidAmerican has 154 easements signed for the two phases, accounting for about 23,000 acres. “We’ve had very good participation in the area. That’s part of the reason we’re submitting the application so quickly for the construction,” Evans said.

MidAmerican plans to start construction in the spring and have it completed by the end of 2018. The company will enter into separate drainage and road use agreements with the county.

Dan Tronchetti wasted no time in asking about whether “common sense” comes into play in selecting the location of turbines in relationship to ag drainage systems. Tronchetti had reviewed the proposed sites and said there were several that are too close to district tiles. “If you’re going to build a tower on the low spot of a farm, there’s a 95 percent, maybe a 99 percent probability, that you’re going to be close to a tile. I think you should apply some common sense and not build towers on the low spot on farms,” he said.

According to Evans, landowners do have input on where the turbines are placed. He, project developer Matt Ott, and project manager Adam Jablonski all reassured Tronchetti that turbines are sited carefully and any damage to tiles would be repaired.

“Protecting our tile in Greene County should be higher on the priority list. Greene County’s biggest asset is our farmland, and without drainage our farmland’s not worth anything,” Tronchetti said.

Discussion of drainage lasted more than 20 minutes.

Potential damage to roads was the next discussion point. MidAmerican project developer Scott Cobb said the damage done to county roads during Phase One construction was due to a contractor moving the extremely heavy rough terrain (RT) crane on the roads. The shoulders and edges of roads were broken. He said the RT crane will be transported on a low-boy trailer, distributing the total weight over more axles to decrease the potential for road damage. “We learned our lesson,” Cobb said.

When the hearing was opened to questions and comments from the public, Jay Thompson was the first to speak, saying MidAmerican had ruined his small acreage by flooding it with wind towers. “I’m happy for all of you in here who are filling your pockets with money from the wind towers, but what about the small guy like me? You’ve damaged my farmland… You’ve got an answer for repairing a tile or a road, but what about my acreage? Every time I walk out I have to listen to it.”

Evans explained that MidAmerican voluntarily offers financial compensation to neighboring landowners who are not able to participate in the project.

Alexis Hooper has been offered a non-participant agreement by MidAmerican but has resisted. She shared that Boone County’s zoning ordinance has a maximum noise level, and suggested Greene County should do the same, and also approve longer setbacks and limits on shadow flicker.

Zoning officer Chuck Wenthold said the supervisors would have to amend the zoning ordinance.

Hooper has had considerable conversation with MidAmerican’s Ott. She said she was told that there would not be more than 30 hours of flicker per year nor more than 50 decibels of noise, but the “good neighbor agreement” she was asked to sign did not have that in writing.

“I need to see that on a piece of paper,” she said. “In the future, if you don’t want to hear me complaining, put it in writing that you won’t exceed that 30 hours of flicker or the 50 decibels. If you’re not willing to put it in writing, I can’t trust you and I can’t trust anything you say. All I can trust is a piece of paper your lawyers write,” she said.

The agreement with non-participating landowners is for $500 per year. It functions as a hold harmless agreement, in that landowners who sign the agreement cannot take future legal action against MidAmerican because of the wind turbines.

MidAmerican’s proposal includes 1,200-foot setbacks from the center of the turbine to the nearest residence for a participating landowner and 1,500-foot setbacks for non-participating landowners. That was mentioned several times.

About 30 minutes later Mike Holden, chair of the board of adjustment, ended public comments. He thanked the MidAmerican reps for being “approachable.” “If you have concerns, have a conversation with them, like Alexis has…. We appreciate all the work you’ve done trying to alleviate all the worry spots you can, but we all have to move forward on blind faith sometimes. Some things we can’t foresee may or may not happen…. We can’t possibly regulate all the unknown things that may happen,” Holden said.

In the end, Hooper’s argument prevailed. Board member Milligan suggested that because MidAmerican already planned greater setbacks and limits on flicker and noise, that they be written into the permit as conditions of use.

Milligan said she hoped the county supervisors would see that MidAmerican’s setbacks and limits are good practices, and they could perhaps go into future changes in the zoning ordinance.

Assistant county attorney Thomas Laehn was called in, and he and MidAmerican’s Jablonski spent time “wordsmithing” a resolution to include the 1,200/1,500-foot setbacks, and limits of 30 hours of flicker per year and 50 decibels of noise, under normal operating conditions. Participating landowners could waive the 1,200-foot setback, but the setback would need to be at least 1,000 feet.

The resolution was approved by the board of adjustment subject to final approval by the county attorney and MidAmerican’s legal staff.

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