Fierce opposition from neighbors shot down an Aberdeen company's attempt to gauge south Lincoln County's wind capacity for a potentially massive turbine farm last week.
Critics told the county's planning and zoning board they were worried about property values, health impacts and nuisances from what could become a 500-megawatt wind project covering hundreds of square miles.
After a three-hour hearing Tuesday, zoning commissioners voted unanimously to deny permits for five meteorological towers proposed by Dakota Power Community Wind.
Company representatives say the opposition overreacted and shut down what was to be a preliminary step in an uncertain project. They also say they might appeal the zoning board's decision.
Tuesday's vote was a victory for a group of Lincoln County residents who'd formed a 501(c)(6) organization called We-Care South Dakota to rise in opposition to wind development in the county.
If the Dakota Power Community Wind project moved forward, turbines would be scattered around Beresford, Canton and Hudson, said Winnie Peterson, chair of We-Care.
"This is one of the largest (wind farms) that's been proposed, and it's in one of the most densely-populated areas where one's been proposed," Peterson said.
Peterson was among those at Tuesday's meetings who talked about a drop in property values from wind farms and about potential health effects from a low-frequency droning sound.
We-Care maintains a website, which links to numerous articles to back its claims.
Dan King, a Lincoln County Commissioner who sits on the planning and zoning board, said the opponents came to the meeting prepared to make their case.
"They made a compelling argument with facts and figures," said King, who didn't vote on the conditional use permits.
The opposition also came in force, although he said there were supporters at the meeting, as well.
"The room was plum full," King said. "There were eight or 10 people standing in the back of the room."
A company representative says the opponents overestimated the meaning of the towers.
There are no plans to build a wind farm of any size, said Rob Johnson of Dakota Plains Energy, which is the company behind Dakota Power Community Wind.
The company only wanted to place the 190-foot towers to measure wind speeds across the county and determine if a farm would be a good investment.
That information gathering process would take up to three years, Johnson said. The company built one meteorological tower last spring. At that point, there was little opposition.
Since then, neighbors have organized.
"Everything was taken out of context," Johnson said. "We were disappointed, obviously. I was surprised that it got as heated as it did. We went into this thinking it was very benign."
The company didn't come prepared to argue the merits of wind energy, he said, because it wasn't asking for permission to build turbines. There are around 140 investors interested in the project at this point, Johnson said, with $2.5 million in funding lined up.
"That's not enough to build a single turbine," Johnson said.
The company has options on about 24,000 acres of land in Lincoln County through interested landowners, he said, but that doesn't mean much until the wind-generating capacity of the area is tested.
The project would be significant, but only if the numbers worked, he said.
If that happened, it would be the largest community-owned wind farm in the country. There are larger privately-owned farms owned by out-of-state or out-of-country investors at various locations across the U.S., he said.
"With this, you'd have a local board making the decisions," Johnson said.
The company is currently working on a 57-turbine project in Campbell County at a cost of $192 million. That project will be a boon to local school districts and the county tax base, he said.
The industry disputes that property values drop when wind turbines move in. Dakota Power Community Wind's website points to research from the University of California at Berkeley on property values, and other research on the site disputes the purported impacts on health.
"A lot of it is fear of the unknown," Johnson said. "The main thing is that people just don't want to look at them."