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Wind turbine zoning changes approved

HARTINGTON – Zoning for wind turbines once again took center stage here this week with both the county zoning board and county commissioners approving changes.

A crowd of more than 100 people gathered Monday for the county planning commission’s meeting at the Hartington City Auditorium, including representatives of wind developer NextEra Energy, which included a sometimes heated 90-minute public hearing. The County Board of Commissioners meeting Tuesday morning was more subdued, netting about 10 people total. Getting to the point of change this week has not

Getting to the point of change this week has not been a breeze.

The board of commissioners previously tabled a decision to adopt the changes at its meeting April 12, with the intention of deciding at its April 26 meeting, yet its members did not take any action at that time.

“There was an objection to our open meeting at the previous hearing, so out of an abundance of caution, the vote taking to accept the proposed additions and revisions to the commercial/utility grade wind energy systems section of the Cedar County Zoning Regulations will be nullified due to the procedural issues,” Zoning Administrator Tim Gobel said.

And the zoning board held another public hearing Monday night before making its same recommendation and kicking the issue back to the commissioners for a final vote.

That was not smooth sailing either, as David Levy of BairdHolm law firm, who represents NextEra Energy, suggested that the commissioners’ regular meeting should’ve been a publicized public hearing. This caused the commissioners to hesitate on a vote without first contacting the Cedar County attorney.

However, a short time later, Levy said there would be no recourse if the commissioners went ahead with a vote and the board did just that, approving the zoning changes as recommended by the zoning board.

Zoning changes include a one-mile setback for a non-participating dwelling and a setback of two times the height of a wind turbine system for a participating dwelling. Setbacks are waiverable by the planning commission.

Gene Colwell, NextEra Energy senior manager for projects in early-stage development, said the zoning board’s setbacks of a one-mile radius from a non-participating dwelling covers about 2,000 acres.

“Normally, in developed wind farms, we’ve seen such numbers as two times the total tip height, or even 1.3 or 1.2,” he said. “The reason that is, is for if a turbine were to fail and fall. That one mile specifically well exceeds what could be set as a standard.”

Instead, he suggested setbacks of one-half mile or less for non-participating residents. “I’m not saying it needs to be a certain number,” he said. “All I’m saying is that normally it’s based on a tip height or an element of that just in case they fell. That’s what the whole intent of it is. One mile far exceeds that.”

Colwell explained how NextEra Energy develops its wind farms based on capturing the wind the most efficiently taking into account the number of participating landowners.

“We don’t normally orchestrate a wind farm based on how far they need to be set apart,” he said. “It wouldn’t benefit us either if turbines were placed too close together ... If one turbine takes away the wind power from another one, it would defeat the purpose, so they’re spaced out according to some of those environmental factors and wind resources.”

Turbines are also arranged in a way that a catastrophic failure of one wouldn’t interfere with other turbines. He said NextEra Energy never wants to see any damage to an operating wind farm.

“There’s a lot of money invested into each turbine,” he said, later noting the cost to put up each wind turbine is about $2-$3 million.

Gobel said the zoning board not only thought about safety but also liability in setting regulations.

“Say 99.9 percent of the time these won’t fall apart, but we’re here for the .1 percent time it does,” he said. “That’s where we get that setback from.”

After the meeting, Gobel said the county has been looking at changing its zoning regulations related to the development of wind farms after learning from other counties nearby. Stanton County was one Cedar County officials contacted about its wind farm zoning regulations.

The zoning board was prompted to make changes to wind turbine zoning after the issue became active from developers seeking to build in the southern part of the county. There are already wind farms in Wayne County near the Cedar County border and in eastern Knox County.

He said the latest proposed additions and revisions to Cedar County’s zoning regulations include design and safety standards of wind turbines as well as the setbacks.

“I believe that those should be in there,” Gobel said.