A project that one day could lead to hundreds of wind turbines dotted across the farmland of southern Lincoln County, S.D., met strong opposition from neighbors worried about property values and health effects.
A proposal to install five meteorological test towers was denied Feb. 17 by the Lincoln County Planning and Zoning Commission. Investors with Dakota Plains Energy, the company behind the Dakota Power Community Wind (DPCW) project, have filed an appeal that will be heard by the county commission. The board was to set a date for a public hearing at its March 3 meeting.
The zoning board’s decision came as a surprise to Brian Minish, DPCW treasurer and president of Val-Add Service Corp. He said his partners had worked closely with Lincoln County Economic Development Association and felt supported in their efforts to bring what would be the largest wind farm in the state to Lincoln County.
A year ago, the board unanimously approved the first test tower, which has been gathering information on wind speeds north of Beresford since April 2014.
"There was no inkling at all that the county itself would have any problem with this. It really caught us by surprise," Minish said.
Winnie Peterson is president of We-Care SD, a nonprofit group that organized in opposition to the wind project. She said they don’t believe wind farms should be built in populated areas. Sioux Falls and the north Lincoln County communities continue to grow, she pointed out, and the southern part of the county is developing with more agribusiness. The wind towers would mean a permanent change to the environment and the community, Peterson said.
"Grandma and Grandpa didn’t have a bad idea when they put up a windmill to pump water for their livestock," she said, but she opposes wind power on such a large scale.
Members of We-Care SD have concerns about the project’s effect on items ranging from property values and agricultural operations to wildlife and the health of people living there.
Peterson pointed to research on towers changing the habits of migratory birds and said there are health effects for humans living nearby, too. The equipment makes noise, she said, and the towers have flashing lights and cause vibrations.
"Wind energy is not for the faint of heart. It is risky," she said.
Ten people spoke against the project at the planning commission hearing in February. Comments ran the gamut from the economic side to the aesthetic side, county planning director Paul Aslesen said.
He described the message: "We live in a county where people envy us because we have beautiful sunsets, and we want to preserve those things.”
The opposition was “very well organized" in its presentation, he said.
The planning commission sided with the opposition. Aslesen said the board decided they were right to preserve the aesthetic qualities of Lincoln County and protect the health, safety and welfare of its citizens, as laid out in the planning and zoning ordinance.
Minish called the decision discriminatory. He said the project fits within the county’s ordinance for wind energy. “I don’t know what Lincoln County wants if you don’t want one like this," he said.
He said it’s frustrating when counties, townships and school districts complain of being short on money, but projects that would bring in tax dollars are turned down.
Projections from the South Dakota Department of Revenue show the 1,000-megawatt wind project would generate millions of dollars in tax revenue. It projects school districts would receive $1.5 million a year, townships would get slightly less than a half-million dollars, and taxes to Lincoln County would start around $1.1 million annually. The state would collect slightly less than a half-million dollars a year once the project is up and running. The state’s amount would increase to upwards of $5 million a year after a 10-year rebate period.
"It’s a huge amount of money for the local government," Minish said.
The Dakota Power Community Wind project has support from more than 110 landowners who signed option agreements for placing towers on their land, according to Minish. All the developers are from Lincoln County, aside from one from Aberdeen, and all the capital required is being raised strictly in South Dakota.
"I don’t know how it could be any more community friendly than the way we approached it," he said.
Even if the company’s appeal over the test towers is successful, the actual wind turbines wouldn’t go up for at least three years. That’s how long it takes to collect meteorological data, including wind direction and velocity.
Minish said the data collected from the Beresford tower has been encouraging so far.
The project also would need approval from the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission.
Minish said the goal is to build the towers in 2018 to align with the construction of a new transmission line known as the Rock Island Clean Line. That project recently was approved in Illinois, and developers are working out the route across Iowa.
"That’s going to be a big door-opener to us," Minish said.
But first, he’ll need to change the minds of Lincoln County officials.