This is the first in a series of articles about the wind farm industry, and a
proposed project in Reno County.
By Duane Schrag
Special to the Rural Messenger
Matt Amos has seen more conflict than anyone ever should. He’s been
deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan.
But what’s happening now in bucolic rural Reno County deeply troubles
“We can’t let this project define us and divide us,” says Amos, a retired
Marine who lost both his legs after he stepped on an IED in Afghanistan eight
Ironically, the project is one that many associate with progress, with
forward-thinking, with being part of the solution to one of humans most
intractable problems: combating climate change.
The project Amos refers to is Pretty Prairie Wind Farm, an 80-plus turbine
wind farm being proposed by one of the world’s largest developers of renewable
energy, NextEra Energy, based in Florida. NextEra owns and operates seven
wind farms in Kansas, including the state’s first wind project, which was
constructed in Gray County in 2001.
Pretty Prairie Wind Farm is to be located in the southeast corner of Reno
County – south of Haven and occupying the countryside to the east of Cheney
NextEra says it is working hard to be a responsible, considerate player.
“We operate more than 120 successful wind farms across the United States
and Canada and we wouldn’t be able to do so if we didn’t do it responsibly and
in partnership with landowners,” wrote Conlan Kennedy, a spokesman for
Profits from NextEra and its affiliated companies (it owns Florida Power
and Light, for example) have assets valued at $103.7 billion, and in 2018 posted
profits of $5.8 billion.
He expressed dismay at the fierce opposition that erupted over the past 15
“There is a vocal minority in the area that has been spreading
misinformation about the project,” Kennedy said in an interview. “It’s a shame
that the few would resort to fear-mongering about an industry that has done such
good not only for our country but especially Kansas and the Kansas economy.”
The “vocal minority” is spearheaded by Reno County Citizens for Quality
of Life, a loose-knit group of volunteers dedicated to, if not out-and-out stopping
the project, then gaining concessions that address their concerns.
They have been producing overflow crowds at Reno County commission
meetings for months. More than 100 showed up for an information meeting Feb.
24 in St. Joseph Ost Parish Hall, in the far southeast corner of the county. Their
concerns have much in common with those expressed by opponents to wind
farms elsewhere in the country, including:
– Landscape changes caused by 500-foot tall turbines (the Epic Center in
Wichita is the state’s tallest building, at 385 feet to the tip of the antenna on its
– Noise from the turbine blades;
– Shadow flicker from the rotating blades;
– Infrasound (inaudible pressure waves caused by the moving blades);
– Light pollution at night from the blinking red tower lights;
– Reduced market values for surrounding property;
– Gag orders in landowner contracts that stifle complaints about these
These phenomena in turn give rise to many complaints. Some are aesthetic;
others allege physical harm. Many of the health claims are challenged in peer-
reviewed literature. And always lurking in the wings is the question of what
regulations should be imposed to protect area residents.
Perhaps the most widely used regulatory tool is zoning, a framework that
establishes a hierarchy of land uses – agricultural, commercial, residential,
industrial, etc. – and within each specifies the activities that are allowed. In
many zones, certain activities are allowed only after a special use permit or a
conditional use permit has been issued. This restriction gives local governments
the opportunity to review such cases and, if necessary, impose certain conditions
before authorizing the activity.
A fundamental regulation found in zoning regulations is the setback – the
minimum distance between, say, a home and the property line, a buffer that
helps ensure that the home on one parcel doesn’t unduly affect the neighbor.
County commissions have the legal authority to adopt zoning regulations in
the county. But Midwesterners have an independent streak, and about half the
counties in Kansas are not zoned. The owners of unzoned property may build
anything, anywhere, so long as it is within their property lines.
Reno County has zoned some parts of the county, but not many. About two-
thirds of the unincorporated area is unzoned.
“Zoning in Reno County generally is not very popular,” says County
Counselor Joe Sullivan. “It is known for being extremely controversial.”
So Reno County commissioners have historically let residents take the lead.
“Zoning has been extended incrementally when constituents wanted it to be
done,” ,Sullivan says.
One of the places constituents had not asked for zoning is in the southeast
quadrant of the county. There is a zoned area several miles deep surrounding
Cheney Reservoir, but otherwise all the unincorporated areas in that corner of
the county are unzoned.
The upshot is that some of the area where NextEra wants to put turbines is
zoned, some is not. Strictly speaking, NextEra is free to put turbines anywhere
on the land of a consenting owner whose land is not zoned.
In the areas where there is zoning, the county has a handful of regulations
relating to commercial wind farms:
– Turbines must be set back from public roads and property lines by the
total turbine height plus 50 feet, but never less than 500 feet;
– Turbines must be at least 1,000 feet from the home of anyone who doesn’t
have a turbine on their property;
– The wind developer must maintain $1 million liability insurance.
As a practical matter, NextEra has pledged to abide by 2,000-foot setbacks
to the homes of non-participating residents, twice the required distance. And it
has further said it will abide by the county’s zoning regulations throughout the
project, regardless of whether a particular spot is actually zoned.
Permit hearing April 4
But in addition to these setbacks, the wind developer must apply to the
county for a conditional use permit. Before a permit is issued the planning
commission must hold a public hearing. It then recommends to the county
commission that the permit be approved or denied, and the county commission
makes the final decision.
The planning commission’s public hearing for NextEra’s conditional use
permit will be at 3 pm April 4 at the Atrium Hotel and Convention Center, 1400
N. Lorraine, in Hutchinson.
Setbacks can have a profound effect on the arrangement of wind turbines,
and have been a hot topic.
“We are obviously very concerned with setbacks of turbines from
residential homes and non-participating properties,” Amos says. “A lot can be
solved with setbacks. And the one thing we as a group want to relay to
everybody – we are not anti-wind. We know that wind has its place. We just
want it to be done responsibly. And the way the county has so far tried to make
this happen, it has not been responsible at all.”
In particular, the group was angered by Sully’s admonition that the county commission stop taking testimony on the subject until the public hearing
in April. Commissioners had been allowing residents to speak on the subject
during meetings, under the agenda item set aside for topics not on the agenda.
“We want our voices to be heard,” Amos says.
Sullivan says their voices will be heard, but it’s important the county
follow the law. In Kansas, county commissioners have three hats to wear:
administrative (deciding which roads are paved this summer), legislative
(adopting rules for county operations) and quasi-judicial.
“They are the final authority on implementing zoning regulations, and when
they do that they act in a quasi-judicial capacity,” Sullivan says. “When you
are talking about regulating the uses of land, and anybody’s free use of land, and
the government’s doing it, there’s certain due process involved and the courts
have said that’s a quasi-judicial decision. Therefore there are certain standards
that need to apply, because those decisions are appealable to the district court.”
Among those standards is the requirement that decisions be made solely on
the evidence presented on the matter.
“The record of evidence begins with the filing of an application for a
conditional use permit,” Sullivan explains. Residents who live within 1,000
feet are formally notified of the scheduled hearing, but anyone can attend and
“The notice of hearing tells people comment is welcome,” he says. “It can
be presented in writing at any time before the hearing, or they can appear at the
hearing. All of that constitutes the record upon which the planning commission
is required to make its recommendation, and the evidence that they consider has
got to be part of the record and not extraneous to it.”
(Next Week: The arguments over HB 2273)
Duane Schrag has been writing about Kansas for more than 25 years, with
special expertise in science, technology and the environment.
Before the Reno County Planning Commission makes its recommendation to the county commission regarding the Pretty Prairie Wind Farm it will conduct a public hearing that opens at 3 p.m. April 4, in the Atrium Hotel and Convention Center, 1400 N. Lorraine, in Hutchinson.
Attendees will be given 5 minutes each to speak.
You may also submit your comments in writing. They must be received before the planning commission closes the hearing.
Comments by email are preferred, and may be sent to: [email protected] There are no special requirements for the Subject line, but suggested subjects are “Case #2019-01” or “Pretty Prairie Wind Farm.”
Comments submitted by letter or postcard should be addressed to: Reno County Public Works Department, 600 Scott Blvd., South Hutchinson, KS 67505.
Following the public hearing, the planning commission will decide whether to recommend approving a conditional use permit, and what conditions to impose. Here are some possible requirements:
- Tax offsets – state law grants new wind farms a property tax exemption for 10 years. NextEra won’t say how much the wind farm will cost, but it likely will be more than $300 million. A state exemption would forgive about $56 million in local property taxes that support local entities such as the county, local school district, township and community college. The county could require that NextEra pay some or all of that amount.
- Decommissioning – removing wind turbines no longer in use will cost upwards of $100,000 each, perhaps more. In some instances, wind farm developers are required to deposit an amount – $5,000 per year per turbine, for example – into an escrow account to ensure that money is available.
- Setbacks – county regulations now require that turbines be no less than 1,000 feet from residences; the developer has agreed to double that distance. The developer also promises to abide by the setback even in unzoned areas. It is unlikely the county will demand that distance be increased even further.
- Shadow flicker – some locations restrict the maximum time any residence may be in the shadow of turbine blades. Typically, the moving shadow from the blades of any one turbine would fall on a home for less than an hour and half a day.
- Transparency – the county could insist on verification that NextEra contracts do not discourage landowners from sharing information about their experience.
Pretty Prairie project:
– The proposed Pretty Prairie Wind Farm is expected to
consist of more than 80 wind turbines; the developer, NextEra
Energy, asked the Federal Aviation Administration to evaluate
91 turbine sites to ensure they are not a hazard to aircraft.
– NextEra has said the turbines will be capable of
generating 220 MW when operating at maximum capacity.
One megawatt – or 1 million watts – if generated continuously
can power 840 homes. Historically, Kansas wind farms
generate about 40 percent of their rated capacity (because the
wind doesn’t blow continuously). Based on that, the wind farm
would produce enough to electricity to power 75,000
– Last year, a Boston-based company, Iron Mountain,
announced that it signed a 15-year power purchase agreement
with NextEra to take 145 MW of electricity from the Pretty
Prairie Wind Farm. A spokesman for NextEra said it has also
signed a power agreement with Home Depot for 15 MW.
– The current cost of fuel required to generate the wind
farm’s annual power output is about $700,000.
– In Kansas, wind farms are exempt from property taxes for
10 years. Based on industry estimates of wind farm
construction costs (NextEra declined to say how much it will
spend building the wind farm), NextEra will save
approximately $56 million in property taxes during that period.
(Next Week: The arguments over HB 2273)