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Large turbines often a surprise; Developers not required to tell public of their plans

John Hearn hopes someday to sell some of his 650 acres bordering the King Ranch for development. Maybe not in his lifetime, but probably in his children's. But Hearn worries of another kind of development, one that he fears will devalue his property: a large wind farm in the Chapman Ranch area. Local farmers have told him that a company has been signing leases. But it has been difficult to determine what, if anything, will be built.

CORPUS CHRISTI - John Hearn hopes someday to sell some of his 650 acres bordering the King Ranch for development. Maybe not in his lifetime, but probably in his children's.

But Hearn worries of another kind of development, one that he fears will devalue his property: a large wind farm in the Chapman Ranch area.

Local farmers have told him that a company has been signing leases. But it has been difficult to determine what, if anything, will be built.

Texas is the largest producer of wind energy in the country, and more wind farms are in the works. This is occurring with what conservationists and some elected officials say is scant regulation. Spokesmen for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the state's Public Utility Commission say they have no oversight over wind farms unless something about the wind farm triggers a review under existing regulation.

Nueces County Attorney Laura Garza Jimenez has likewise told county commissioners that there is no law giving counties oversight of wind farms. That absence of regulation has left few avenues for a member of the public to know whether his new neighbor may be a 400-foot tower with blades.

"There's no notice... more [truncated due to possible copyright]  

CORPUS CHRISTI - John Hearn hopes someday to sell some of his 650 acres bordering the King Ranch for development. Maybe not in his lifetime, but probably in his children's.

But Hearn worries of another kind of development, one that he fears will devalue his property: a large wind farm in the Chapman Ranch area.

Local farmers have told him that a company has been signing leases. But it has been difficult to determine what, if anything, will be built.

Texas is the largest producer of wind energy in the country, and more wind farms are in the works. This is occurring with what conservationists and some elected officials say is scant regulation. Spokesmen for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the state's Public Utility Commission say they have no oversight over wind farms unless something about the wind farm triggers a review under existing regulation.

Nueces County Attorney Laura Garza Jimenez has likewise told county commissioners that there is no law giving counties oversight of wind farms. That absence of regulation has left few avenues for a member of the public to know whether his new neighbor may be a 400-foot tower with blades.

"There's no notice requirement," said Houston-based environmental attorney Jim Blackburn, "unless you trigger a building permit." Building permits are generally required to construct anything in city limits.

Hearn estimates that the project could span 35 square miles.

"The main issue is having an installation like that with no permit and no civic input," Hearn said. "You can't build a septic tank in the county without a permit. But they can build 400-foot structures without so much as a "Hey, we're coming."

Russel Smith, executive director of the Texas Renewable Energy Industries Association, said wind turbines have increased neighboring property values in some cases. And he said the industry is founded on environmental concerns.

"Trying to go through the permitting process that some have asked for would bog everything down so nothing gets built," Smith said. "It's not beneficial for our society or for the renewable energy industry."

Laurie Jodziewicz, the manager of siting policy for the American Wind Energy Association, said the association's preferred stance on regulation is to allow local governments to decide land use issues.

"From our perspective, we really defer to the local land use decision-making process," Jodziewicz said. "It is essentially a land use decision, and those can be very sensitive."

Legislative efforts

Local governments have begun to worry about the effect of new wind farms, but legislation that would have given a select number of Texas counties some oversight died in the Legislature this session. Elected officials in the Hill Country, fearful that turbines could hurt the scenic beauty of the area, led a campaign in the Legislature to give some counties authority over wind farms.

But county officials backed off after landowners complained that new laws could affect their ability to derive income from wind farm leases.

Nueces County Commissioner Mike Pusley said he supports new wind projects, but he's surprised that a wind farm can pop up without developers having to tell anybody.

Construction of turbines could impact efforts to control flooding. Heavy trucks could damage roads meant to handle little more than farm equipment, Pusley said.

"This isn't an endorsement for or against wind farms," Pusley told fellow commissioners at a recent meeting, "but we may want to talk about this in the future."

Jodziewicz said that in places where local governments have regulatory authority, road upgrades and repair can be negotiated as part of the permitting process.

Commissioner Chuck Cazalas said that's a potential benefit.

"What would it mean for a county if roads were updated?" Cazalas said. "There are two sides of it. I'm not sure a wind farm would be preferable to a power plant."

Advocates have identified just one source for information about potential windmill projects, and that's the non-governmental agency that runs the power grid, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT.

ERCOT collects data on planned new power sources, but the information is geared toward people with deep knowledge of electricity markets. The identity of an operator isn't public in the very early stages of planning unless the operator files a letter permitting disclosure of the plans.

Dotty Roark, a spokeswoman for ERCOT, said the rules are such that the agency cannot provide details on T. Boone Pickens' widely reported plans for wind farms in West Texas. Despite Pickens' fame and his heavy promotion of the wind project, ERCOT can't discuss it because it has no letter permitting it to do so.

New wind projects and other power plants become public after they sign an agreement with a big power company. Even after the power plant owners are identified, ERCOT only tells the public which county a project will be located.

"A county is a pretty darn big place," said Tom "Smitty" Smith, director of the advocacy group Public Citizen Texas. "We've been very supportive of wind because it's non-polluting. We've also raised red flags, especially on the Gulf Coast, because there's such a tremendous opportunity for damage to birds and wildlife."

Federal regulations

There are federal regulations that wind farms must follow, such as rules dealing with construction on wetlands and rules dealing with storm water runoff, but none triggers public notice requirements.

A consortium of conservationists and the King Ranch known as the Coastal Habitat Alliance has attempted, unsuccessfully, to use existing federal environmental laws to slow wind farm development in Texas, particularly on the Kenedy Ranch. The group says the turbines present a threat to migratory birds.

The company building the turbines on the Kenedy Ranch has agreed to install radar that disable the turbines when large numbers of birds are detected in the area.

Some research says that threat is overstated because birds tend to fly well above the turbines.

Blackburn, who has represented the group, says that if a judge finds that federal law mandates a federal or state environmental review, it would trigger public notice provisions.

Public notice of new power plants is usually required after a developer submits an air emissions permit application. But windmills are emissions-free.

"Wind doesn't have an air permit issue," said Russel Smith, of the renewable energy association.

It's unclear if Hearn's estimates regarding the size of the farm are accurate. Smith said the footprint of a wind farm is small. Farming, for example, can usually continue.

"Life goes on between the wind machines," he said.

One company signing leases in the area, Element Markets, has hired Debbie Lindsey-Opel as a spokeswoman, which might be considered a signal that there is activity in that portion of Nueces County.

Lindsey-Opel said it's too early to tell the size of the project, or the number or size of the turbines.

Hearn fears living near turbines is akin to living near a power plant.

"The city is growing in that direction," Hearn said. He and his neighbor worry the wind farms could choke off that development.

"Most people have land there for long-term development," said Skip Butler, Hearn's neighbor. "Would you want to live next to one of those?"


Source: http://www.caller.com/news/...

AUG 16 2009
http://www.windaction.org/posts/21753-large-turbines-often-a-surprise-developers-not-required-to-tell-public-of-their-plans
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