A group of landowners say at least two members of the Deuel County Board of Adjustment that voted to permit a wind energy project in January will profit from it.
Fourteen people signed on to a lawsuit in the eastern South Dakota county this week that asks a judge overturn the board’s decision granting those permits.
In addition to conflict of interest, the landowners say the board failed to properly consider their objections and to issue written findings verifying that the turbines were placed in accordance with zoning ordinances.
The lawsuit comes less than a year after the county passed stricter rules for wind development in response to heavy public input about two projects under the banner of Deuel Harvest Wind Energy.
The first phase of the project would place 130 turbines on private land, generating enough electricity to power 100,000 homes. If completed, it would be one of the largest wind projects in the state's history.
The Board of Adjustment took up permit applications from project sponsor Invenergy on Jan. 22, and all five members voted in favor.
The lawsuit alleges that two of those board members had signed lease agreements that will entitle them to payments if the project is completed.
Deuel County State’s Attorney John Knight had previously recused himself because of conflicts of interest, the lawsuit said, but advised the board during the Jan. 22 hearing.
The plaintiffs also note that Board Member Paul Brandt said at a previous meeting that further setbacks would make it impossible to place turbines on his father’s property.
"Prior to and during the hearing, the Board displayed a clear bias and predisposition in favor of the projects being proposed by Invenergy, which translated to a hearing that was not fair or impartial," the lawsuit said.
Reece Almond, the Sioux Falls lawyer representing the families opposed to the project, declined to comment beyond the complaint.
Knight declined to comment on the lawsuit Thursday, saying it’s unclear whether he or representatives of the South Dakota Public Assurance Alliance would hear the case.
He did note that the County Commission approved stricter rules for wind energy after hearing feedback from the public last summer.
The previous zoning ordinance included a 1,000-foot setback from homes, for example, but the new ordinance requires a setback four times the height of a tower from any “non-participating” home or business.
The new rules also caps sound at 45 decibels and limits “shadow flicker” from turning blades to 30 hours a year.
Knight said the changes were made in response to public concerns.
“Generally, the wind energy companies are viewed favorably, but there are definitely areas where there is more concern,” Knight said.
Michael Svedeman, Invenergy’s Manager of Project Development, said he could not address the specific claims in the lawsuit, but said it doesn’t paint a clear picture of the permitting process.
“From our initial review of the filing, it is factually and legally groundless, and we intend to vigorously defend the projects,” Svedeman said.
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The local permits are only one step in the process for Deuel Harvest Wind Energy. The project would also need to apply for permits from the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission. The company has yet to file those applications, Svedeman said.
“We’re still a couple years out from construction,” he said.