In a three-hour, emotion-packed meeting Aug. 22, Hamilton Independent School District’s board of trustees accepted an application for an appraised value limitation on qualified property from Vista Wind Farm.
The board also approved the district’s budget for 2017-18, adopted a teacher/administrative appraisal system, added a new career tech course for Hamilton High School and approved adjunct-faculty status for AgriLife Extension agents.
The Hamilton Junior High cafeteria was packed with proponents and opponents of the wind farm project. The opponents were donned in white shirts and made up at least half of the assembly.
Board president T.P. Medlock agreed to give each side a half-hour to speak in the public participation portion of the meeting, to which the board could only listen without comment.
“This will be the biggest decision HISD will ever make,” said Ray Wilkerson of Save Our Heritage, which opposes the proposal by EDF Renewable Energy to install a wind farm stretching from Highway 84 at Evant to as far as Indian Gap.
Wilkerson questioned EDF’s proposal to provide a bond after 10 years of operation.
“Buying a bond in the eleventh year is like buying fire insurance for a house that just burned down,” he said. “For the board’s protection, the community’s protection and even for the people with a windmill on their land, the bond needs to be put up Day 1.”
Wilkerson also asked the board to consider the size of the wind generators, which he said were to be 50 stories tall.
“The highest high rise in Texas is 50 stories,” he said. “No one is qualified to take it down, and it is estimated to cost $150,000 to $200,000 per windmill to take them down.
“That’s hard to imagine.”
He questioned the longevity of EDF and the improbability that it would still be owned by the same people in 10 to 20 years.
“Make sure they stay all the way through,” he said.
Wilkerson asked the board to consider the number of windmills, stating that 500 windmills would be constructed, plus transmission lines across ranches to hook them into the grid.
“That is condemnation,” he said. “They don’t get paid for loss of their land. It is impossible to think that 500 windmills will not decrease property value.
“Have respect for all of this,” he said. “I’ve had a ranch for 35 years, and it has been in the family for four generations. No one loves that land more than I do.
“You never know how beautiful it is until it is at risk. Imagine that with 500 windmills.
“What you have here is already a jewel,” he said. “They are talking about changing this land forever. It breaks my heart.”
Wilkerson concluded by stating he did not envy the board in its decision.
“This is on the legacy of this board,” he said. “They will remember every board member who makes this decision. I applaud you, feel for you; it is not fun. But some things are just not for sale.
“I guarantee what you make on this is what I will lose on my ranch in one year.”
Matt Walters, a ranch sales professional and landowner in southwest Hamilton County since 1998, said he has never seen land values go down except when a wind farm is constructed. He estimated 24 to 45 percent diminished land values if the wind farm comes to Hamilton County.
A Comanche County landowner addressed the board about the wind farm recently constructed there. She said she owns 648 acres and is surrounded on three sides by giant wind turbines.
“I can walk around my place and count 57,” she said. “They intrude on every aspect of our lives.
“The noise is the worst part, and it varies in tone, volume and intensity,” she said. “Sometimes it is like a giant fan, but most times it is like a constant roar that never stops.
“I can’t sleep. I keep the TV on in the bedroom to sleep, but if the wind is from the north, I have to go to the living room, and still don’t sleep.
“The minute they started generating electricity, the problems began,” she said. “Red blinking lights at night – you can see them from 25 miles away. Imagine living 1100 feet from one.
“It reflects off windows and windshields, off tanks. We can’t even go fishing.
“A neighbor had such a roar, they couldn’t even sort cattle one day because they couldn’t communicate over the roar.
“The shadow flicker is so bad, you can’t go out. And there is sand in the well. Also, a loud pop in our home.”
She said they were considering leaving but having difficulty selling the place.
“This not only affects the home, but there is noise, reflection and lights on all parts of the ranch. We couldn’t even move to the middle and get away from it.
“We no longer have a quiet, peaceful life. We live in the middle of an industrial plant. Please carefully and thoroughly weigh the decision and consider all factors,” she said.
“I encourage the school board and administration to consider a yes opinion for the wind farm,” said Renee French. “All of my life I have felt them to be a beautiful expression of creativity and power that can harness a natural resource of wind. I’ve always appreciated seeing them.
“I’ve heard the very impassioned feelings of the people who live where this is happening, and with sadness I’ve heard some of the thoughts and concerns,” she said. “It weighs on me.
“Ultimately, what I want to ask of you is to look at this as an opportunity for the community of Hamilton,” French said. “I’ve lived here 8 ½ years, and I do not recall another economic industry appearing or inquiring to be a presence in Hamilton County.
“I’m of the opinion that as options are brought to mind they should be seriously considered for the welfare of the county.
“Consider a yes opinion,” she said. “I do know you would make your decision in a prudent way and do what you believe to be in the best interest of the county and school district.”
“I’m a strong supporter of the wind farms,” said Keith Rogers. “I understand the situation you face. Cindy and I purchased property and moved our family here 14 years ago. Three have graduated from HHS and one will graduate this year.
“As a landowner, I have a vested interested. My family will benefit financially if it’s completed,” Rogers said. “I can only see a positive to this. Many of these do not own land in Hamilton County or HISD. Their kids do not come to HISD but they believe they know what’s best for Hamilton and HISD.
“Do you believe they know what’s best for our kids?
“Mills County and Comanche County have wind farms,” he said. “From discussions I’ve concluded many of the opposition’s arguments are not valid. They often offer no proof for their claims.
“I talked to Realtors in those counties and they tell me they don’t see the decline in land values that have been reported tonight. Land transactions do continue, and in some areas are still selling at all-time highs.
“To see the benefit, reference the Comanche Chief from two weeks ago,” Rogers said.
(In its Aug. 17 edition, the Comanche Chief listed 2016 tax year collections from the Logan’s Gap Wind Farm by entity: Comanche County, $190,278.78; Road and Bridge, $528,253.80; Water District, $27,808.84; Comanche ISD, $243,724.68; and Hospital District, $149,400.15 for a total $1,139,446.25.)
“As a former school board member, I remember budget concerns and enrollment declines,” Rogers said. “The district will continue to face budget issues in the coming years. It will receive revenue from wind farms, and that is a fact. Any amount would be positive for the kids.
“Look ahead and be forward thinkers,” he said. “Do we want to leave this to our children? Consider the possibilities – tax revenue to help the school and county, a boost to the local economy, the list goes on, and it’s a snowball effect.
“This installation is not an attempt to reinvent the wheel. The proof is here. Talk to school boards of other counties. Find out if it benefits their schools.
“I’ve spoken to my four children, and they all support the wind farm and believe it will be good for our family and for Hamilton County. They are the next generation on my property.
“Your primary consideration is what’s best for HISD staff and students,” Rogers said.
Gene Flippen said his ranch has been in his family for five generations.
“It is special and dear to us,” he said. “The last thing my father told us was to hold on to the land, make it pay for itself.”
Opponents of the wind farm had stated that Evant ISD and Gillespie County said no to the wind farms.
“Evant did not say no,” Flippen said. “They tabled the application and will bring it back up again later.
“As far as Gillespie County, in Hamilton County, how many million-dollar homes are in Hamilton County? Gillespie County is full of them. Their tax base is a heckuva lot different from Hamilton County.
“Obviously, you will make people mad tonight,” Flippen said.
“My father was on the school board for many years. He said it was the hardest job ever. He went through a school bond and several tax increases. He had friends, family members, church members and neighbors mad at him. But he always said our children are the future.
“The opposition has not said one thing they will do to help our children. We need technology to better our kids to go out into the world. There will be winners and losers tonight, but if you vote yes, our children will win.”
“There is no person who opposed the Vista Mountain project who actually lives at Vista Mountain,” said Toni Perez. “Our communities need help for our children, and I don’t think we will get this opportunity again.”
The board also heard from counsel regarding conflict of interest disclosure requirements and the process should it choose to accept the application.
“If you accept the application, it starts a process that takes 150 days,” said Terry Smith of Powell and Leon.
The law firm would review the application, then submit it to the Texas Comptroller’s office on behalf of HISD for additional review and recommend to the district whether or not it is a good thing for the district and the state.
“It can’t cost the school district anything to enter the agreement,” Smith said. “The company pays $75,000 up front for attorney fees and other costs. The district is not to lose any revenue at any point in time.”
“I know how you feel,” said Robert Pena of Texas Energy Consultants. “This is my 11th year as a school board member in Edinburg.
“The purpose of the 313 is to work closely with the school district for a positive economic impact for HISD and build more tax base in the state of Texas.
“The application is that the company intends to build a project of 150 to 300 megawatts,” Pena said. “That’s 125 turbines, not 500.
“I know other companies are looking at Hamilton County and other districts. Hamilton County and EDF intend to create an investment of up to $320 million,” he said, of which HISD would receive 80 percent.
“This would also create six to 10 jobs with a $40,000 minimum salary,” Pena said. “And the company will pay its taxes like any other company.
“Two other companies are competing for other parts of Hamilton County,” agreed project developer William Osborn. “There are four projects in Mills County.
“If all that has been said tonight were true, you would have seen a lot of talk in the Goldthwaite paper. There has been no mention of these problems. They are very pleased to have them.”
Osborn added that Comanche and Erath counties also have wind farm projects. “Hamilton is somewhat surrounded by other counties with active wind,” he said.
Melissa Miller, project development manager for EDF, said she has been working in Texas since 2002 on wind projects.
“I admire the communication this evening from all parties,” she said. “It is critical for us to involve landowners, and likewise taxing entities. All opinions are valid.
“Take a look,” she said, “and consider what this could mean for your community.”
Miller added that there will be no imminent domain rights for EDF.
“There is no authority for condemnation,” she said.
Medlock asked about imminent domain for power lines, and Miller said EDF builds its own through existing leases or negotiated easements.
“The collection system runs between turbines underground,” she said. “There is a point we have to take it from underground to an above-ground substation to the point of interconnect.”
She said that the company knows geographically where to put the turbines, but the substation will be on land with a turbine in the middle of the infrastructure with the shortest distance to the interconnect.
“In terms of liability with EDF being a French company, actually, the state requires a Texas company to ensure all assets are in the company so if ownership changes, protections are in place. We have 15 years of agreements, and none are defunct.
“EDF has been in the U.S. for 30 years, and we won’t build a project unless we have someone to buy the power.”
Miller also responded to questions about the bond.
“The industry standard is a renewable bond at year 10,” she said, “to allow for when the project has depreciated to the point it would cost more to remove the equipment than it is worth. That’s why the provision is in place, but that’s a separate issue to what we’re asking here.”
After a 10-minute recess, the board voted unanimously to accept the application and authorize Tarpley to grant any required extension to the 150-day period, subject to ratification by the board.
As the room cleared, Medlock continued the meeting, calling a public hearing on the proposed budget, and with no one speaking, the board voted unanimously to approve the $8.4 million budget for 2017-18.
Part of HISD’s District of Innovation plan was to opt out of the Texas appraisal plan, and Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Jennifer Zschiesche spent the summer sorting through teacher and staff input and formulating a new teacher appraisal document to meet the needs of the district.
Zschiesche said she kept many elements of the T-TESS system but made it more manageable and relevant to the local district. The board approved the new appraisal system.
HHS principal Gina Poe said another elective course was needed in the career-tech area, and Coach A.J. Ladd is certified to teach Sports and Entertainment Marketing.
Poe said the class will be enjoyable and will feed into the district’s radio broadcast.
The board approved adjunct faculty status for AgriLife Extension agents Bruce Boyd and Sheila Ondrusek and the extracurricular status of Hamilton County 4-H.
The board also welcomed new faculty members and aides Alison Hamilton, Cathy LeGrande, Stacey Selman, Heather Mizell, Alan Luker, Kim Benfer, Lesa Whaley, Rhonda Hipp, Brandy Graham, Tanya Guinn and Cindy Burke.