By DUANE SCHRAG
Special to the Rural Messenger
The long evolution of a 34,000-acre wind farm proposed for southeast Reno County enters its next phase on Tuesday, April 16, when the county is to announce when the marathon hearing on the controversial plan resumes.
At issue is an application by NextEra Energy for a permit to build more than 80 giant wind turbines south of Haven and east of Cheney Reservoir.
The location and date for the planning commission hearing – the date is expected to be April 22, 23 or 29 – is to be posted on the County’s web site on April 16. The proceedings will follow public comment hearings that began in Hutchinson on April 4 and were twice continued.
The next phase is to hear rebuttal testimony from County staff. The planning commission is then to weigh more than 20 hours of testimony and thousands of pages of documents as the basis for recommending NextEra’s request be approved or denied by the Reno County Commission..
If the decision is to issue a permit, the planning commission may also recommend various conditions be attached. They might include details for a road maintenance agreement, payments to reimburse local governments to compensate for a $56 million property tax exemption granted under state law, the terms necessary to ensure that NextEra (or its successor) will remove turbines when they are no longer used, an undertaking that will cost upwards of $10 million, increasing the minimum distance between turbines and nearby houses, or mandating that no turbines be placed in wildlife buffer zones.
Over three days of hearings, the planning commission twice reconvened the proceedings to hear testimony from scores of citizens, most of them bitterly opposed to the NextEra plan for a 220 megawatt wind farm.
The Messenger has reported extensively on this issue in a series of articles that began last month.
If the planning commission recommends the permit be issued, opponents will have 14 days to gather the signatures for a protest petition. If the petition is sufficient, a decision by the county commission to issue the permit must be unanimous.
Determining whether the petition is sufficient is not straightforward. For starters, only landowners in zoned areas with property within 1,000 feet of a parcel that hosts a turbine may sign, said Mark Vonachen, county planner. These are the landowners who were notified by the county of the proposed wind farm. (NextEra notified people in unzoned areas, but they are not eligible to sign a protest petition.)
If all the owners of 20 percent (by area) of the surrounding property sign the protest petition, it will trigger the requirement for a unanimous decision, Vonachen said.
He emphasized that only the portion of an adjacent parcel that is within 1,000 feet of a participating parcel counts. For example, if Landowner A owns the northeast quarter of a section and agrees to have a turbine placed on their land, and Landowner B owns the other three quarters in the section, the only portion of Landowner B’s property that is considered adjacent is the portion within 1,000 feet of the northeast quarter.
That is, 144 acres of Landowner B’s 480 acres would count as adjacent property. If adjacent property is held in multiple names, all the owners must sign the petition for the property to be counted.
It’s not yet known just how many wind turbines will be installed if the permit is issued, or exactly where they will be placed. In the NextEra application filed in February, the company said the wind farm would include 81 turbines; it listed four alternate sites. Around the same time, it filed a request with the Federal Aviation Administration for a review of 88 turbines and three alternate sites.
Over the past two months, some turbines have been moved, others removed from these plans. The Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism notified NextEra in a letter April 2 that nine of the turbines are within a three-mile buffer zone around Cheney Reservoir. However, a map of the locations submitted to the FAA shows 20 turbines within the buffer zone.
During NextEra’s rebuttal testimony Thursday night (April 11), a representative read a letter from KDWPT that further discussion will explore “flexibility in changing the siting of some of the turbines within the 3-mile buffer.”
NextEra declined a request to comment.
During the third and final phase of the public hearing, NextEra was given an hour and a half to rebut testimony opposing its application, and then spent nearly three hours fielding questions from the planning commission.
NextEra said it has agreed to place turbines no closer than 2,000 feet from the homes of non-participating residents, which is twice as far as county zoning regulations require. And although much of the wind farm footprint is not zoned, NextEra said it would abide by zoning rules even in unzoned areas.
The wind developer’s self-imposed minimum setback is 1,400 feet, spokesmen said.
However, a steady stream of opponents argued that 2,000 feet is too close. They asked for 2,500 to 8,000 foot setbacks, citing noise from the turbines and the obstruction of view.
NextEra maintains that with turbines no closer than 2,000 feet from homes, the sound level is acceptable. It submitted a study that calculated the sound level at 475 homes in and around the wind farm footprint.
But sound values in the study were expressed as an annual average, providing no insight into the maximum levels, and in particular how loud they would be at night.
Turbine noise is mitigated primarily by moving them further from homes. When asked by a planning commissioner if 2,500 foot setbacks might be considered, NextEra project manager Spencer Jenkins said it would have a tremendous effect on the project and that the 2,000 foot distance is the most possible.
Adrian Harrel, who manages NextEra’s Pratt and Kingman county wind farms, explained to planning commissioners that NextEra can and will shut down turbines at a moment’s notice if necessary — if whooping cranes are spotted heading for the turbines, for example, or for aerial spraying on a field in the footprint.
“I can shut it down with my iPhone from here,” Harrel said. “I could shut down the entire Pratt site.”
In some cases, NextEra enters agreements with the National Weather Service to shut down wind farms during severe weather if turbines interfere with the weather service radar, said Sam Massey, a NextEra project director.
Earlier in the hearing process, a NextEra representative told the planning commission that the wind turbines have no effect on weather radar, an assertion that was challenged by opponents.
An online screening tool maintained by the Federal Aviation Administration indicates that the proposed Reno County wind farm is in a location that does have the potential to interfere with the Wichita weather radar, and one that should be reviewed by the National Weather Service.
NextEra told commissioners it will provide NWS information about the site this summer.
The issue of interference with GPS signals, which are crucial to precision farming operations, was pressed by planning commissioner Russ Goertzen. He said that in his experience structures far less imposing than 500-foot tall wind turbines can cause interference.
Harrel and Mark Trubauer, another NextEra manager, said they have yet to receive a complaint about GPS interference from wind turbines.