Fulton County Commissioners on Monday took a bold stance against commercial wind energy development in the county, leaving a company’s plans for a three-county wind farm unclear.
Commissioners Bryan Lewis and Rick Ranstead unanimously agreed to strike all language pertaining to commercial wind energy conversion systems from the county’s zoning ordinance. Their decision was met with boisterous applause from a large turnout of citizens opposed to a wind farm proposal by Renewable Energy Systems, or RES.
It was assuredly a victory for the Fulton County Property Rights group, which organized a grass-roots campaign to keep large-scale industrial wind turbines out of the county.
Commissioners’ decision was not made lightly, Lewis told the audience of 300-plus that filled the Community Building at the Fulton County 4-H Fairgrounds.
“I never thought we would have an issue presented before us that was such an emotional one,” he said. “There has been a lot of information given to us from people opposed to this and some information given in favor.”
He went on to say that RES’ proposed wind farm is not something that commissioners went out and solicited for.
“Although the monetary gain could be big, money is not the most important factor to consider. Quality of life is,” he said. “I feel if I vote in favor of the current ordinance before us we may jeopardize the community.”
Lewis also spoke about a common response he would receive when questioning those that do not live in or near RES’ proposed project area.
“They say they don’t mind it but wouldn’t want to live by it,” he said, adding “If people don’t mind them but wouldn’t want to live by them, then why would I want to impose something on the people that very few would want to live close to.”
He concluded by saying that a commercial wind farm in Fulton County is “not something that the good people of this county want,” and encouraged those in attendance to come together as a community with solutions “to help move us forward with projects the people, as a whole, can get behind.”
Ranstead was left with little else to say, other than that he didn’t like how the issue was “tearing the community apart.”
Commissioner Steve Metzger did not take part in Monday’s vote. He recused himself prior to the meeting, citing “perceived conflicts of interest” as the reason. Some have been critical that his financial adviser is employed by RES and that his wife’s side of the family could have potentially benefited from the project.
Several people in attendance thanked commissioners, including Fulton resident Pat Brown, who commended Lewis and Ranstead for “realizing there are more important things than just trying to get all the money we can get.”
Rebecca Van Horn, who lives near Leiters Ford about 25 miles from RES’ proposed project area, also thanked commissioners and said, “The people of Miami and Cass County are just now finding out what you guys have all found out over the last few months.”
Union Township resident Dana Field said: “I just wanted to say a big thanks for thinking about the people that were really going to be affected. …It really does touch home, so we just want to say thanks for listening and hearing what we voiced.”
Joan Null, who said she was not part of Fulton County’s fight but has been involved in a number of wind ordinance battles across the state, made a recommendation to commissioners.
“Please don’t leave yourself open … go ahead and make a declaration within your zoning ordinance that large WECS systems are not a permitted use in any zoning classification,” she said. “Close that door. Don’t leave it open for the next developer.”
Aaron Ault, a senior researcher at Purdue University and a fourth-generation Fulton County farmer, spoke on behalf of the Fulton County Property Rights group.
“We really would like to commend commissioners Lewis and Ranstead for putting the health, safety and well-being of Fulton County citizens above the wishes of a foreign-owned wind company whose goal in Fulton County turned out to be irresponsibly siting industrial wind turbines, some of the biggest in the world as it turns out, near our homes and taking our safety and our property rights,” he said. “This fight truly has been like David and Goliath. Fulton County citizens and landowners banded together to fight a multinational company. … (Our) group will continue to advocate for a wind ordinance that is protective because the process for writing the wind ordinance for Fulton County previously was tainted, as we have found with evidence obtained from an access to public information request.”
Russ Phillips, who has been critical of wind farm development from the outset, presented commissioners with a stack of signed petitions calling for stricter setbacks than those currently proposed by the Fulton County Area Plan Commission. He estimated there were 800 signatures. “I think you did better than that,” he told commissioners, adding that “common sense has prevailed.”
Shannon Pugh was the only person to speak in opposition to commissioners’ decision.
“Obviously, there are workers that just lost jobs,” he said after asking construction workers of Fulton County to stand. “We’re running out of good-paying jobs around here. Keep that in mind.”
Ranstead responded: “We do need jobs. We know we need jobs, but this wasn’t the right fit for this community.”
Fulton County Attorney Greg Heller outlined the next step in the process, noting the ordinance will go before the Fulton County Area Plan Commission for consideration. If the board rejects commissioners’ recommendation, they will be required to take a reaffirming vote within 45 days. The plan commission, which also has 45 days to make its decision, meets 7 p.m. Dec. 11 in the Community Building at the Fulton County 4-H Fairgrounds.
“It’s unfortunate that they lost an incredible economic opportunity, an opportunity that doesn’t come along often,” said Brad Lila, director of development for RES. “They chose to listen to a vocal minority and walk away from hundreds of millions of dollars in economic benefits. The schools really could have used it, the county could have used it. …But, we really appreciate the hard work of the planning commission. We appreciate the support of the trades coming out and wanting to keep some local jobs and some local work here in Fulton County.”
When asked if RES’ project could still proceed in Miami and Cass counties, Lila simply stated, “We’ve got to look at a few things.”