Gene Stehly wants answers.
Stehly and other rural Davison County residents are waiting to see which way the wind blows on a $40 million renewable energy project, but Stehly said too many unknowns remain.
After months of discussion from the county's Planning and Zoning Commission, the Davison County Commission will have the opportunity to approve a 9- to 11-turbine wind farm between Mitchell and Mount Vernon.
The proposal from Juhl Energy, of Pipestone, Minn., would permit the company to install up to 11 turbines on the property of Brad and Peggy Greenway on a 3-mile by 1-mile stretch of land about 10 miles west of Mitchell in Beulah Township, about three miles north and two miles east of Mount Vernon. The project would be one of three similar wind farms in Davison, Aurora and Brule counties to install wind turbines approximately 400 feet tall from the tower's base to the tip of the blade at its highest point.
Brad Greenway, who farms the property where the turbines would be located, hoped Tuesday's meeting would answer any of the questions posed by opponents.
"We live in a great neighborhood, so we wanted to have an opportunity for everybody to have their questions answered or voice their opinions," Greenway said.
But Stehly, and 15 to 20 neighbors he's spoken with about the wind turbines, are hoping the five-person commission takes some time to consider the project's potential impact on neighbors to the Greenways' property.
"It's a fairly serious issue in terms of the way it might negatively affect a very large number of people," said Stehly, who lives within a mile from the proposed wind farm site. "And this seems to be moving along pretty fast, considering it's kind of the first project in Davison County of this nature."
Stehly holds no ill-will toward the Greenways, although he said it would be ideal to have no wind farm in Beulah Township.
With the project approaching final approval at Tuesday's county commissioners' meeting, Stehly hopes to have several questions answered and, preferably, to have the project delayed so each of the Greenways' neighbors have an opportunity to properly educate themselves about the impact of wind farms on area landowners.
Stehly wants to know more about Juhl Energy, how noisy the turbines will be, the possible effect on property value, impact on quality of life and potential shadow flicker caused by the nine to 11 towers. But even if those questions are answered, Stehly doesn't approve of the idea of a proposed wind farm located within a mile of his home, his daughter's residence and his parents' house, respectively.
"Visually, it's going to be imposing to so many people," Stehly said. "They just don't belong in an area that populated, that's the bottom line."
Fortunately for Stehly and his search for answers, Commission Chairman John Claggett said he will not rubber stamp the project that was unanimously approved by the Planning and Zoning Commission last week.
Claggett said a few residential wind systems are scattered throughout the county, but there are no major wind projects currently established. Lacking prior experience with renewable energy projects this size, Claggett said the commission needs to take several components into consideration.
"Part of it, too, is when you put these units up, they're kind of lessons in perpetuity," Claggett said. "You don't take those down right away, so you really have to be asking all the questions in a general sense."
Claggett has yet to make up his mind whether he supports the project, but said the county is cognizant of projects to attract business to the region. While the county is proactive in its efforts to attract opportunities for economic advancement, Claggett said that's balanced with the caveat the commissioners are making sure they're doing what's best for their constituents.
Claggett also said the wind farm discussion provides the commission with a chance to establish regulations for any future renewable energy projects.
According to Deputy Planning and Zoning Administrator Mark Jenniges, the county has one ordinance regarding wind turbines currently established. The existing setback ordinance says a turbine erected on a landowner's property must be placed where, if it were to fall, it would not land on a neighboring property.
In preparation for Tuesday's board of adjustment meeting at 9:15 a.m., the Planning and Zoning office sent out letters to 55 area landowners within one mile of the three-mile stretch of land to increase awareness of the project. While 55 letters were sent, Jenniges said there are seven homes in the area immediately surrounding the Greenways' land.
Proponents make their case
As Stehly hopes for more time to get better acquainted with the project, Juhl Energy has already reached the midway point in establishing its 20-megawatt Davison County project.
Last spring, Corey Juhl approached the Greenways after Juhl Energy engineers identified the Beulah Township location as a potential wind farm site, due to its positioning near Northwestern Energy's distribution line.
Months later, the county approved the installation of a meteorological tower to measure wind speed and direction, and those tests proved successful.
"It's awful windy up there, which is a good first step," Juhl said.
With 23 utility scale projects and 30 years of experience, the company is hoping to bring its first wholly owned projects to Davison, Aurora and Brule counties. Before the three proposed projects, Juhl Energy had done consulting work on other South Dakota wind farms and established other projects in Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska.
As he works toward getting approval for three South Dakota projects, Juhl said it's rare to have as many opponents as the Davison County project has garnered. For example, Juhl said the Brule County project has seen no opposition. But regardless of whether opposition exists on a project, Juhl said the energy company always tries to be a good neighbor.
Although Davison County's wind-related ordinances are limited, Juhl said the company is determined to go above and beyond the existing county setback ordinance. The Greenways are the nearest home to any of the nine to 11 wind turbines, but Juhl said the next closest home is more than 1,500 feet away from the nearest turbine, which triples the county setback ordinance.
"We're not coming in trying to take advantage of a non-wind-ordinance county," Juhl said. "We're kind of sticking to our best industry practices and trying to do the right thing."
Juhl also said the project will have positive implications for the local property tax base. Juhl estimated the 25-year project would generate about $3 million in taxes.
At the Dec. 1 Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, it was estimated that $2 million of the revenue would return to the region, with 35 percent going to the county, 15 percent to Beulah Township and 50 percent going to school districts. According to Jenniges, the project falls in both the Mount Vernon and Mitchell school districts.
If approved, the project is also expected to create some temporary construction jobs, along with at least five full-time maintenance positions. Juhl said the Minnesota-based company typically hires local firms whenever possible to pour concrete or for general construction.
Juhl also expects at least five full-time employees to be hired to maintain the three proposed wind farms that span across three neighboring counties. Ultimately, Juhl said, the company would like to find some Mitchell Technical Institute students to serve on the maintenance team.
But all of the potential benefits, or negative ramifications, depend on Tuesday's decision by the commission.
"Really, the public hasn't had much introduction into that (project), so it will be fun and interesting to see how all this plays out," Claggett said.
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