While controversial proposed rules to govern wind farm development in Lancaster County have been dialed back, the fight over the turbine regulations is far from over.
Wind energy developers and people who don’t want turbines as neighbors are now turning their attentions to the Lancaster and Gage county boards.
The Lancaster County Board is expected to take up the issue next month, and it has final say on the regulations. The Gage County Board has been discussing amending regulations there but has yet to draft a formal proposal.
On Wednesday night, the nine members of the Lincoln/Lancaster County Planning Commission recommended approval of the proposed rules on a 5-4 vote, after rolling back sound limits and doing away with a daily limit on the amount of time flickering shadows cast by turbine blades can pass over neighboring houses.
In a prior vote with the same 5-4 margin, the commission changed the proposed sound limits to 50 decibels during the day and 42 at night measured from dwellings.
The move disappointed Hallam and Cortland area property owners who are trying to stop development of a wind farm by Oregon-based Volkswind USA. They had wanted the noise limits to remain at 40 decibels in the day and 37 at night, numbers that were recommended by the Lincoln/Lancaster County Health Department.
“I was extremely disappointed they seemed to ignore the report that Scott Holmes from the Health Department gave on what they thought was safe,” said Charlotte Vieth, who lives about a mile south of Princeton.
Vieth said she would be surprised if the Lancaster County Board votes against the Planning Commission recommendation.
But Cindy Chapman still has hope and plans to lobby local elected officials. She and her husband own an acreage near Cortland, and she is spokeswoman for the grassroots group Stop Hallam Wind. The organization represents 130 people who would be affected by the wind project.
“We don’t want these things intruding on our property, our use and enjoyment of our property, and by setting those limits at the property line that gives us a little more protection,” she said.
About the shadow flicker limits, Chapman said a 30-minute-a-day limit should be reinstated. Now, the regulations would allow shadows from blades to fall on the homes of people who are not participating in the wind farm for up to 30 hours a year and would require the developer to do computer modeling to show it will stay within the limit.
“There is no reason to inflict that strobe effect on a nonparticipant when it is as simple as turning off the turbine during that offending time,” she said.
Volkswind USA previously has said the original proposed noise rules and the 30-minute shadow limit would make development of a wind farm difficult, if not impossible.
The company advocated for sound limits of 55 decibels for landowners who sign contracts with them and 50 for landowners who don’t, with an allowance for up to 5 decibels above background noise.
It’s unclear whether the night-time limit of 42 decibels would allow Volkswind USA to move forward with its project. The company already has signed leases with 60 landowners for about 13,000 acres of property on which it wants to build more than 50 turbines.
"We need to look at these changes in the context of other new setbacks to determine what the project could look like or if it is still possible," said Volkswind project manager Joe Wood.
The regulations call for a minimum setback of 1,000 feet from any home. For nonparticipating properties, the setback must be three times the height of a turbine measured from the blade tip at its highest point.
Planning Commission Chairwoman Jeanelle Lust said during the Wednesday meeting that harvesting wind is an agricultural activity, and Lancaster County should not prevent projects from going forward by passing the most restrictive regulations in the state.
That is music to the ears of Lancaster County farmer Gregory Schwaninger, who said in a phone interview he wants a turbine on his property. The income from wind farms will help landowners pay their taxes and offset low corn and soybean prices.
“This is ag land, and I think we should be able to harvest the wind,” he plans to tell county commissioners.
Planning Commissioner Michael Cornelius, who proposed the amended sound regulations, said he chose 50 decibels for daytime because it is comparable to other counties and 42 at night because that is a figure proposed in a 2012 health impact study on turbines done by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.
The original proposed regulations resulted from the input of a Wind Energy Text Amendment Working Group of 12 people plus eight from Gage County. The group held six meetings that were open to the public.