LINCOLN — In a vote that could affect wind farm development elsewhere in Nebraska, the Lancaster County Board on Tuesday adopted tough new noise restrictions on wind turbines.
The restrictions prohibit wind turbines from generating more than 40 decibels of noise during the day — about what’s generated by a household refrigerator — as measured at nearby residences.
Currently, 50 decibels is recognized as a standard noise limit by several Nebraska counties.
While opponents of a wind farm proposed near Hallam, Nebraska, cheered the new rules, developers of wind energy projects said the tougher restrictions would not only bar any commercial wind farms in the state’s second-most populous county but could affect projects in other counties.
“It’s disappointing because these restrictions are simply not necessary to protect safety and health,” said Jeffrey Wagner of Volkswind USA Inc., which is seeking to build a wind farm near Hallam, Nebraska.
Tuesday’s vote culminated a weeks-long debate in Lancaster County about where wind turbines are appropriate, and where they are not, and whether sleeplessness, hypertension and other health problems are associated with living next to them.
The debate centered on issues like the “swish” and “thump” noises associated with the skyscraper-tall turbines, the flashing red warning lights on the wind towers at night and the “flicker” created by windmill blades at sunset and sunrise.
Also swirling in the discussion was Nebraska’s lagging development of wind energy. While it has some of the best wind resources in the nation, the state ranks No. 20 in its development.
The 54-tower Volkswind project was projected to bring $700,000 in new property taxes to Lancaster County and give landowners about $10,000 a year in lease payments per turbine, but some nearby residents on Tuesday said Hallam wasn’t an appropriate site because of its large number of rural acreages.
“There are plenty of areas across Nebraska where these industrial wind farms can be located without being an intrusion,” said Mark Hunzeker, a Lincoln attorney representing a Hallam landowner opposed to the wind farm.
But supporters of the project accused opponents of “fear mongering” about possible health effects.
“It’s in the public interest to move to clean, renewable power,” said John Atkinson of Lincoln.
State Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm, a leading advocate in the Legislature for wind energy, presented several maps to the board showing that a 40-decibel standard would rule out commercial wind farms in Lancaster County because of the setbacks required from residences.
Lancaster County Commissioner Bill Avery, a former state senator and wind energy advocate, offered a compromise on Tuesday. But his amendment to set the noise limit at 45 decibels was defeated.
The commissioners then voted 3-2 to adopt a noise limit for wind turbines recommended by county health officials: 40 decibels during the day and 37 decibels at night.
Lisa Sullivan, a representative of Florida-based NextEra Energy, said Lancaster County’s vote could cause other counties to follow suit. That would “likely” affect her company’s proposed wind farms in Webster and Wayne Counties, and one that includes parts of Butler and Saunders Counties.
Wayne County currently has no zoning laws, thus no noise restrictions. Some townships in Butler County have passed restrictions on wind farms, but the county attorney there has told the townships that the rules are unenforceable.
Webster County Planning/Zoning Administrator Lonnie Knehans said the county left its noise limit for wind turbines at 50 decibels after a sometimes contentious debate over the past year.
The county has given the go-ahead for construction of up to 55 wind turbines south of Blue Hill and has given preliminary approval for another wind farm near Bladen. Knehans said that the lease income will help farmers and that the taxes paid by the projects will help the rural county, which is on the Kansas border south of Hastings.
“Anything we can do for the ag economy is pretty important to us,” he said.
Knehans added that there was an additional setback requirement on the Bladen wind farm so that it wouldn’t interfere with the view from nearby historic farmsteads associated with the work of the famed author Willa Cather, a native of Webster County.
Myron Dorn, the chairman of the Gage County Board, said it remains to be seen whether his county will adopt noise restrictions similar to those in Lancaster County.
The Volkswind project near Hallam would extend into neighboring Gage County, and Dorn said he gets two to three emails a day either for or against the project.
Dorn was part of an eight-member committee from Gage County that attended some meetings in Lancaster County and recommended that Gage County also adopt a 40-decibel noise limit for wind turbines. That suggestion was scheduled to be discussed by the zoning board in Gage County on Tuesday night. A public hearing is expected to follow in December.
“My gosh, we found out it’s quite a topic,” Dorn said.
Gage County currently has a 50-decibel noise limit, and he said the county has received no formal noise complaints about 12 wind turbines operating in the county as part of the Steele Flats Wind Project.
But, Dorn said, there’s a lot more information about wind farms to consider now.
Volkswind chose the Hallam site because it was close to available electric transmission lines that extend from the coal-fired power plant there.
When asked if it was possible to relocate the entire Hallam project into Gage County, Wagner, the Volkswind representative, said he didn’t know yet.
“It’s not easy to just pick a project up and relocate it,” he said.