NELIGH — The wind of public opinion may have shifted toward the end of another long public hearing Tuesday to consider a proposed wind farm near here.
The hearing Tuesday afternoon included countless points made by supporters and opponents of the Upstream Wind Energy project on top of those already made Jan. 19 when the public hearing began before the Antelope County Planning Commission.
While the opposing opinions continued, toward the end of Tuesday’s hearing, there were some who suggested the two sides might not be all that far off — and that a compromise could be reached.
While many new points were made Tuesday, supporters continued to tout the economic benefits while opponents raised concerns about noise and other possible undesirable consequences, including up to eight turbines that could have an impact on the Neligh airport.
The commission closed the public comment portion of the hearing Tuesday afternoon. There were 21 people who testified in January and 16 on Tuesday.
The commission never did vote on the project. Instead, the commission chose to continue the hearing until Wednesday, Feb. 24, at 11 a.m. That will give commissioners time to review the information presented and get answers to new questions that were raised Tuesday.
It also was suggested that, at the Feb. 24 meeting, commissioners would continue discussing the project, and Invenergy, the company proposing the wind farm, could answer questions.
The wind farm has been proposed mostly in the Neligh area. It calls for up to 168 turbine locations in Blaine, Custer, Neligh, Elm and Willow townships.
Robert Johnston said he signed a contract to allow wind turbines on his farm but had not received any payment so far. Johnston said in listening to the points made Tuesday, he believes the sides are not that far off.
“Let’s work out the differences and make it work for everybody,” Johnston said.
Dan Zwingman, one of the county planning commissioners, ended up declaring a conflict and did not speak at the last public hearing. On Tuesday, he spoke during the public comment portion but did not vote.
Zwingman said he doesn’t think this is a difficult issue. The county has a restriction that the turbines can’t be louder than 50 decibels.
If the company’s existing turbines are above 50 decibels, don’t allow the project to move forward. If they are below 50 decibels, allow it, Zwingman said.
At the beginning of the meeting, Char Carpenter, the county’s zoning administrator, said she had received written complaints about the wind turbines’ noise on a different Invenergy wind farm in southern Antelope County.
At the hearing on Jan. 19, some of those who spoke said they believed the turbines near them were too loud.
But at that time, company and county officials said they never received any formal complaints. Mark Smith, planning commission board chairman, said now that the county has a complaint, it will need to follow up.
One of the things that was unclear was how the complaints would be investigated, including whether the county board or planning commission should investigate them or how to go about doing that.
While there were about 120 people at the first public hearing, less than half that many attended Tuesday’s continuation.
It has been estimated that about 400 full-time equivalent jobs would be created during construction, resulting in about $45 million in new local output.
In addition, about 12 new full-time jobs would be created. The company would work with Northeast Community College to hire trained workers.
More than $3 million in taxes, leases and other payments would occur each year, including about $1.3 million in property tax revenues.
Among the disagreements Tuesday was whether eight of the 168 proposed turbines should be allowed in the 10-mile instrument approach zone on the north end of Neligh’s airport.
Joe McNally, a Neligh attorney who serves as secretary of the local airport authority, said many of the turbines violate the height requirement within the approach zone. He based it on the proposed height of the towers and land elevations and FAA regulations.
Mick Baird, vice president of development for Invenergy, said the company was basing the location by the airport on county maps and zoning regulations. His company regularly works with the FAA to make the determination, Baird said.
McNally said applying for the turbines in violation of FAA rules would put Neligh in a “bad spot.” Not only would it risk future airport funding opportunities, it also could subject Neligh to paying back past grants, he said.
The issue is expected to be researched further before the next meeting.
Since the January meeting, Invenergy submitted about six pages of written answers and responses to some of the questions previously raised.
Dean Smith, who is opposed to the project, said the county should reject it at least until it gets some of the questions answered, including about noise levels.
Smith said he had researched the noise level of the generators and turbines but could not find the exact same type as proposed on General Electric’s website. Nevertheless, he found some that are similar, with an estimated decibel range of 105 to 110 decibels, he said.
“So I guess that’s above the 50 decibels (the county allows),” Smith said. “That’s all I can go by.”
Other concerns were raised about maintenance of wind turbine tower lights; getting the company to list a more specific site for each tower location rather than up to 900 feet in each direction; and concerns that allowing the towers could prevent adjacent landowners from building or developing their land in the future.
Supporters said the noise is no worse than center pivots running at night, ethanol plants operating or grain bin dryers that run all night.
They also said that if the county didn’t want the project, the wind farm would go to another county that would gain the millions of dollars in economic benefits.