DAVID CITY -- In Butler County, the fight over regulating wind farms has dropped down to the township level.
The annual meetings of township boards rarely attract an audience, but on Tuesday night, 46 of Franklin Township’s 148 registered voters gathered to consider whether the township should enact regulations concerning development of wind turbines.
The township, covering 36 square miles, surrounds the Butler County seat of David City on its north, east and south sides. Members ultimately voted to place limitations on developers hoping to build wind farms, but whether those limits are ultimately challenged in court awaits similar proposals to be considered by five other townships in eastern Butler County.
Unlike decisions made at the village and city level, the township's registered voters, not the elected board, are asked to decide policy issues.
Franklin Township residents voted 33-13 to ban high-voltage power lines, needed to carry electricity to a larger grid, from running under the township’s roads.
Residents also voted 33-11 to require 1,640-foot setbacks between the turbines and the nearest township road and any nearby property whose owner is not part of the development. The regulation also placed limits on the noise created by turbines during overnight hours.
The regulations were drawn up by the Bohemian Alps Wind Watchers, concerned area citizens who organized after wind developers’ plans became known last spring. The regulations were formally proposed Tuesday by a Franklin Township resident.
Similar regulations are proposed in five other townships with upcoming meetings: Savannah and Skull Creek, Tuesday in Bellwood; Oak Creek, Wednesday in Brainard; Richardson, Wednesday in Dwight; and Linwood, Thursday in Abie. Wind Watchers members took the township approach after learning that Butler County, with no countywide zoning rules in place, could not put restrictions on the wind farm developments.
Developers have been seeking easements for turbine sites in Butler County for more than a year.
In Franklin Township, Bluestem Energy is looking to install two wind turbines that would add power to the David City electric grid. Bluestem is developing the project under allowances made by the Nebraska Public Power District for a percentage of electricity to come from alternative or “green” sources.
NextEra Energy Resources is looking to build a complex of up to 112 wind turbines across northern and eastern Butler County and western Saunders County.
Zoning in townships?
Before the discussion of regulations began, some Franklin Township residents asked if the township could even consider the proposals.
David City attorney Jim Egr, who serves as the township’s attorney, said the township board could have declined the proposals, saying “I am of the opinion that the township doesn’t have the authority to pass zoning regulations.”
But he noted that some of the township’s residents had put in a lot of work preparing them, so the voters should be able to hear and consider them.
Egr cited the 2013 case of Butler County Dairy vs. Butler County, in which the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that the county could not be forced to overrule Read Township’s refusal to allow a manure pipeline under the township’s road.
In that case, however, Egr said the Supreme Court did not make a specific ruling on the township’s authority to enact zoning rules.
Attorneys representing the opposing viewpoints made their arguments about the underground power lines.
Omaha attorney David Levy, representing Bluestem, said state statutes did not give townships authority to enact zoning, and that the placement of power lines was allowed under the state’s highways.
Attorney Greg Barton of Lincoln, representing Wind Watchers, said that the roads in question were not state highways but instead, township roads.
Bluestem representative Adam Herink said that the company had proposed its two turbines for a site about a mile east of David City, only to learn that a 24-acre housing subdivision was being planned within a half-mile of the turbine sites. The company adjusted, seeking sites further from David City.
Township resident Jeff Struck said that the township has already “given quite a bit to society” with the Butler County Landfill there, along with a methane pipeline to David City. Wind turbines would adversely affect the property values in the area, he said.
Others spoke against the regulations, cautioning against enacting rules for structures that people simply do not like. Would rules regarding grain elevators and center-pivot irrigation systems be next, they asked.
Bruce Bostelman, a Wind Watchers member who lives near Loma, said that regulations of underground power lines were strictly a safety issue.
John Stanner of Brainard, another Wind Watchers member, said the wind turbines, reaching more than 400 feet to the top of the blades, can throw ice chunks as far as 1,700 feet. The blades also have failed, throwing blade fragments, he said. Township roads and the property of neighbors who are not associated with the wind farms need to be protected, he said.
If properties are included in the wind farm by choice of the owner, the setbacks would not apply.
“This is about safety, not about not having wind turbines,” Stanner said.
Herink, representing Bluestem, said Stanner was making arguments based on the wind turbines of 15 years ago. He said the industry has advanced its designs and also has improved its ice detection abilities, so that in ice storms, the towers shut down.