The Freeborn County Board of Commissioners rejected a proposal Tuesday to conduct a study of the Freeborn Wind Energy Project planned in southeast Freeborn County.
The proposal failed by a 2-2 vote. Dan Belshan and Mike Lee voted yes. Glen Mathiason and Chris Shoff voted no. Jim Nelson abstained from voting because he owns property where wind turbines are slated to be installed.
The board’s vote came after approximately 20 people shared support and concerns of the planned project in a public forum that lasted for more than an hour.
Dan Litchfield, senior manager of business development with Invenergy, read comments of support for the project and gave a brief background of the process so far. The project is estimated to have a $3.5 to $4 million annual impact on Freeborn County — whether through property taxes, jobs or other means.
“I’m generally proud of the hard work we’ve accomplished, and this is a good project,” Litchfield said.
Invenergy is expected to develop the project and then Xcel Energy will take over the building for the project and operate it.
Supporters of the plan discussed the positive economic impact they said the project would have on Freeborn County. Those who expressed concern about the project requested commissioners gather more information about the project’s possible health effects before proceeding with it and claimed moving forward without increasing the minimum setback allowance showed county officials have a greater concern for money than the health of residents.
The project’s possible effects on local television and internet service and environment were discussed.
Detractors of the project cited extensive local apprehension about the project, and concern was expressed that the project could cause rural residents to leave the area.
The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission has authority to approve the project, said Freeborn County Attorney David Walker. The commission could overrule the county if officials implement an interim ordinance for an increased wind turbine setback, he said.
“Local option is (preempted) by state authority,” Walker said.
Public comments will be available before the state commission.
Shoff said he thought the endgame of the study was to stop the project. Belshan said the resolution directed Freeborn County Environmental Services to conduct a study.
“I think we owe it to the citizens to do this study,” he said.
“It’s worth trying.”
Mathiason doubted whether information gathered in the study would be available when the project’s permit site application is expected to be finalized and filed with the state commission in early June.
The proposed project is smaller than the Bent Tree Wind Farm project, Mathiason said, and he thinks too long of a minimum setback will cause a decrease in local wind energy.
The crowd became visibly upset when Belshan read a letter from Litchfield to a Freeborn County resident that stated people might not be home or should close their blinds if flicker from the wind turbines bothers them. Flicker is expected to occur for 30 hours a year.
“Let’s study this,” Freeborn County resident Stephanie Richter said. She discussed lawsuits against Invenergy and claimed wind turbines pose a health hazard. The property value of land near turbines in Bent Tree Wind Farm development has decreased, she said.
“Do your due diligence,” Richter said.
Lisa Hayek, who lives in the area of the proposed wind farm, requested meeting attendants raise their hands if they would be affected by the project and had concerns about it. A majority raised their hands.
“I think the room has spoken,” she said.
Increasing the setback rules for wind turbines is unfair at this point, Litchfield said, noting the average residential setback in connection with the project already exceeds the minimum standard of 1,000 feet.
Speaking directly to Litchfield, Belshan took issue with the way he addressed concerns the commissioner made about the project, adding the increased size of wind turbines since the last minimum setback allowance was established.
The turbines are expected to be in London, Shell Rock, Hayward and Oakland townships. Twenty-five to 49 turbines are expected to be in Minnesota, with the remaining balance are planned for Iowa.
Randy Kehr, Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce executive director, expressed concern that increasing the setback allowance would drive business revenue from the area.
“I am thoroughly convinced that we need to leave the setbacks the way they are,” he said.
Bernard Hagen, who lives in Hartland Township, said he has 20 wind turbines within a mile of his house and has encountered numerous health issues since the Bent Tree Wind Farm was installed in 2011.
“Let me tell you, it is hell,” he said. Directly addressing Shoff, Hagen derided him for his approach during the process and said he received a letter from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that stated he could not live at his house any longer.
“It’s not fair,” he said. “Money trumps health.”
Bernard Hagen and his wife, Cheryl, spoke last month to the board, and claimed they had experienced, including hearing loss and other issues since the wind farm was instituted.
London Township Board member and Freeborn County Public Health Employee Michelle Severtson said her township can conduct projects without the tax revenue generated from wind turbines.
“We can do without these wind mills coming in,” she said.
Severtson said she has received documents that contradict Invenergy’s claims that the wind turbines will not cause health effects.
Marie McNamara, who lives in Goodhue County, suggested the county implement a moratorium until the issue of possible health effects can be resolved.
Citizen wind energy expert Kristi Rosenquist of Goodhue County discussed her concerns of state law regarding minimum wind turbine setback allowances.
Another speaker who lives in Freeborn County claimed he has experienced headaches and sleeplessness due to wind turbines. He claimed his son has also experienced headaches.
Belshan said after the meeting that the resolution was written by Walker to do a study on a possible amendment of Freeborn County’s official controls relating to the regulation of renewable energy systems in Freeborn County.
“Changing the setback from affected homes in the wind farm to reflect the larger wind turbine size was what I’d hoped to achieve,” he said. “We could have done it with our staff and our zoning board at a low or no cost.
“It was disheartening to see county government disregard taxpayers who brought facts and only asked to look at setbacks for larger turbines.”