In a decision that clearly didn’t sit well with most of those in attendance at Wednesday’s meeting of the Henry County Commissioners, the county leaders extended an economic development agreement between the county and wind developer NextEra Energy that dates back to 2014.
Attorney Mary Solada, representing NextEra and its West Fork Wind Energy project, noted the company’s plan calls for erecting as many as nine industrial wind turbines in Dudley Township. Solada said the proposed project in southeastern Henry County represents a local investment of $26 million. The majority of the turbines involved in the West Fork project (formerly known as the Whitewater Wind project) are planned for Fayette County.
Solada said the agreement specifies direct payments to Henry County by NextEra, noting the exact total of the payments will depend on how many megawatts of power the Henry County turbines actually generate.
She also noted the Henry County Council approved a tax abatement extension in March that runs through the end of 2018 and requested the economic development agreement likewise be extended through the end of next year.
“NextEra does intend to build this project in Fayette County, we have all the approvals there. We’d like to invest in Henry County. We’d like to build this project in 2018,” Solada said.
She also noted that in addition to economic development payments, the county stands to realize approximately $3 million over 30 years in property tax payments and roughly $1 million in road improvements the company will pay for. The numbers discussed did not include monies to be paid to individual property owners with a lease in place that allows for a turbine on their property.
Solada said the company intends to incorporate minimum setbacks of 1,400 feet from a turbine to the nearest residence, which she noted exceeds the local wind energy conversion system ordinance requirements.
Commissioner Kim Cronk asked if the state requires that an economic development agreement be in place in order for the project to proceed. Solada said there is no such requirement and that if the company obtains needed approvals from the Henry County Planning Commission, the turbines could be placed and the company wouldn’t have to pay the county anything with respect to economic development if the economic development agreement is allowed to expire.
County attorney Scott Hayes was asked for his interpretation on this point and he concurred with Solada.
“We can extend it (the economic development agreement) and if the project goes forward get paid $12,000 per megawatt ... or we could not extend it and not get paid anything if the project moves forward,” Hayes said.
“Let me make sure I understand this,” commissioner Butch Baker said. “If we don’t extend it, we don’t prohibit them from building. They can still build it?”
Hayes confirmed that was the case.
Cronk followed that up by saying NextEra wasn’t asking for anything new, just for reaffirmation of an agreement already in place.
When given a chance to weigh in on the matter, several members of the audience shared their thoughts.
Susan Huhn said a “significant portion” of the people who will be affected by the turbines don’t think allowing the wind development project to move forward will benefit, protect or promote the future well-being, quality quality of life or health of Henry County residents. She asked the commissioners to table NextEra’s request for an extension.
Gary Rodgers said the project will hinder economic development in Henry County and will not benefit the county or the residents who live here. He also said the agreement essentially allows NextEra to have their way regardless of the will of the people who live here. Rodgers described the amount of money NextEra would be paying the county as “chump change” compared to the profits it will realize and suggested the county either renegotiate the agreement to get a bigger slice of the profit pie or let it expire.
Several other people spoke over the course of the 20 minutes provided for public comment with nearly all of them speaking against the extension request for one reason or another.
Cronk eventually made a motion to approve the extension with Baker providing a second. Commissioner Ed Yanos abstained and the vote to approve passed 2 to 0.
NextEra’s next hurdle is getting the planning commission to grant an extension for a Commission Approved Use (CAU) that is already in place.
During a May 18 meeting, the planning commission did not have enough votes to approve or deny a request for a second one-year extension of the CAU that will allow NextEra to continue to develop their industrial wind turbine project in the southern part of the county. The planning commission is scheduled to re-consider the matter at its June 15 meeting.