Things remained relatively calm on Monday at a special public hearing in Pierre on the Hughes County Commission’s plan to change key zoning ordinances for large wind energy farms and the tall-towered turbines that harvest the power in the breezes.
In the end, the Commission sort of split the difference: it voted to change the county ordinance to add restrictions to windmill farms, but didn’t get even close to the restrictions opponents of the project voiced.
The Commission heard firm opinions from opponents and supporters of Infinity Renewable’s plan to build a wind farm of 120 or more giant wind tower/turbines in eastern Hughes County and western Hyde County. Representatives of Infinity said they were happy with the public hearing and supported the Commission’s changes in county ordinances, even though it added some restrictions.
“The last thing we want to do is turn neighbor against neighbor,” said David Mebane, a land agent for Infinity Renewables who says he has obtained easements from many landowners in Hughes County for windmills.
An almost evenly divided crowd of about 44 people - pros on the east side of the courtroom aisle and cons on the west side watched quietly as for more than an hour about 10 people spoke to the Commmission. The hearing was held in the third-floor courtroom in the courthouse because the Commission’s regular meeting room was too small.
“Cats kill more birds than wind turbines do,” said Jan Krull, a landowner south of Harrold who says she and her husband have signed easements with Infinity Renewables.
Like several facts asserted on Monday by pros and cons of the wind farm project, Krull didn’t appear to cite any source about who was counting dead birds via cats or windmills, or when the count was made, or where.
But she said it was a matter of the rights of property owners to use their property as they wish, within limits of course. It’s also good for others, Krull said.
“The benefits are enormous,” Krull said of Infinity’s plans. Besides producing from 250 megawatts to perhaps 750 megawatts of electrical power, the wind farm project would create 21 jobs “with wages of $1 million per year.”
It also would mean thousands of dollars per year for landowners - $10,000 to $15,000, according to landowners who oppose the project but say they were offered that much - for each windmill.
The project also would provide $427 million of property taxes to the county and a similar amount to local school districts, Krull said.
“Please do not let a small minority of people infringe on our property rights,” Krull told the five-man Commission.
Where did she obtain the information about tax revenues to the county from wind farms, Commissioner Tom Tveit asked Krull.
Those figures were given to her by representatives of Infinity Renewables, Krull said.
Tonja Jessen said her children are the fifth generation of her husband’s family on their farm south of Harrold“This is about property rights,” she told the Commission. “We’re not here to reap money off the land. We are here to take care of the land and leave it for the benefit” of her children’s generation.
Their land seems like it’s more rock than soil and difficult to eke out a living for her family, Jessen said. She doesn’t want to break up pasture land to grow cash crops that might endanger the soil through erosion, she said. “So these wind towers are a possibility for people to leave pasture ground (alone). . . it gives us another opportunity to harvest a crop off this ground without breaking up the ground.”
She and her children lie on the ground under other nearby big wind turbine and enjoy the quiet, hearing the birds flying overhead, not the blades of the windmill turning, Jessen said.
One landowner couple brought professional help.
Reece Almond, a Sioux Falls attorney, said he was representing Michael and Angie Bollweg, who own and run a farm and an upland game hunting service south of Harrold and have spoken out at previous meetings against Infinity Renewables’ wind farm plans.
Citing largely from European studies and examples, Almond said the large wind turbines generate too much noise. He said the Commission should lower the allowable decibel level from 55 to 40 decibels because the World Health Organization says constant noise louder than 40 decibels can be harmful.
Almond suggested several studies the Commissioners should read, and said in Europe and in Wyoming local leaders have done things differently than the Hughes County Commission plans to do.
The long argument from Almond didn’t sit right with at least one of the Commissioners.
“I’ve been elected for 14 years by the people in this room . . . and this is the first time . . . someone showed up at the Commission to tell the Commissioners our roles as a Commission,” Jim Hardwick, with a set to his jaw, told the lawyer. “I appreciate that,” Hardwick went on with sarcasm. “I think it’s … condescending.”
Almond was contrite: “I apologize . . . that was not my intent.”
The Commission listened to about 10 people at the hearing, including two representatives from Infinity Renewables.
The Commission then voted to approve the planning commission’s recommended changes to county ordinances, increasing the setbacks in the county’s ordinances, and several other changes.
There is a 20-day waiting period for possible challenges before the proposed changes become official ordinances
The Commissioners thanked the large crowd for expressing strong opinions in a civil manner.
Chairman Norm Weaver said the Commission tried hard to balance the property rights of those who want to take the opportunity to earn new income from their property with the rights of opponents of the project not to be unfairly put upon by what their neighbors do with their property. As he has at previous meetings, Weaver expressed frustration in trying to find objective information about the effects of large wind energy systems which wasn’t promulgated either by supporters or opponents of wind energy and large wind farms.
“I came here tonight with a firm understanding - a firm understanding - that wind farms cause sleeplessness. Commissioner Tom Tveit said at the close of the meeting. “MY sleeplessness!”
It brought laughter from all around.