July 20, 2024

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Cherokee County Commissioners nix wind development

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Surrounding counties have mostly allowed the introduction of wind farms, but the Cherokee County Commission took a stand Monday, unanimously passing a resolution putting a one-year moratorium on wind development.

Commissioner Lorie Johnson said the moratorium will give the county time to fact-find and make a more informed decision.

The final action was taken Monday after a special meeting last week in which representatives of RWE — the company seeking to expand into Cherokee County, which a has project in Labette — and members of the Neosho and Labette County commissions spoke. In Neosho County Apex Clean Energy has a project.

The local KSN Affiliate reported that RWE Representative Matt Tulis, at the special meeting in response to concerns over road damage, reduced property values and general “unsightliness” said “But it’s tax payments to the county, it can diversify the county tax base, in other projects we’ve significantly upgraded the roads, so we feel there’s a lot of benefits to the project coming.”

Perhaps, but those benefits are somewhat theoretical, as wind farms generally receive a 10-year property tax abatement, but other issues such as “ice throw” — a potentially significant safety issue in an area where ice storms are not uncommon — flicker and predatory leases are not in the least theoretical.

Ice throw is confirmed by a General Electric study that stated “… rotating turbine blades may propel ice fragments some distance from the turbine — up to several hundred meters if conditions are right.”

Some experts suggest a minimum setback of at least a mile, or a bit more, from any dwelling or occupied structure, and in Ireland, a bill was proposed in 2014 to mandate a setback of 10 times the height of the turbine.

In many cases, the landowners signing leases with the wind companies do not realize exactly what they are signing. The leases can run to 40 pages, and contain language that obligates the landowner,  their heirs, or anyone to whom the land might be sold for the duration of a lease that may be as long as a half-century.

Indeed, Washburn University Law Professor Roger A. McEowen in 2016 authored a nine-page paper outlining many of those risks.

Moreover, while the agreements usually give the company the exclusive right to develop the land for the turbines for two to five years, the company will have the right to operate the turbines for as much as fifty years.

Additionally, among other issues, McEowen says: “… wind energy agreements typically prevent a landowner from terminating an agreement or taking action against the wind energy company due to noise, flicker, electromagnetic interference with global positioning systems, vibrations, air turbulence, and other effects caused by the wind turbines.” His paper concludes — in part — “from a landowner’s perspective, many wind energy leases and/or easements are inadequate, unfair and offer limited economic benefits when compared to the revenues generated (and tax subsidies received) by large scale wind energy developers. The most common shortcomings of such agreements include (1) contractual terms extending too long into the future; (2) contractual language that binds landowners to unilateral amendments; (3) inadequate compensation clauses (and compensation clauses that are difficult to understand); (4) provisions that are the result of unequal bargaining power.”

Johnson said one of her concerns is that the company has been working on signing up landowners for six months without ever coming to the commission.

“They started this development, or the process of this development without even visiting the city or the commissioners,” she said. “Which immediately raises a red flag for me.”

Johnson said she understands that there is a potential for significant money for the landowners who do sign leases, but she doesn’t represent just them.

“We all understand that there’s the possibility for some of our landowners to make a decent amount of money,” she said in an interview Tuesday. “But on the flip side, we also know that their neighbor who’s not making that kind of money … it’s a nuisance that they’re going to have to look at and listen to for the life of this project.”

Because there are no state-wide regulations regarding the setback or siting of wind turbines, Johnson said she’s looking at introducing a resolution to make Senator Mike Thompson’s SB 279 the regulations for Cherokee County — as Mound Valley resident Debbie Cramer is trying to do via referendum in Labette County.

Senate Bill 279, called the “Wind Generation Permit and Property Protection Act” imposes certain requirements on the siting of wind turbines that would bring order to the current chaos of wind farm requirements in the state.

Currently, there are few state regulations on where and how wind turbines can be sited, whether the “setback” — or distance a turbine can be from an inhabited dwelling or occupied building, such as a school — is from the building itself, or from the property line, what distance that must be, or how close turbines may be to a road. Most of those decisions are made by county commissions on an individual basis — and, according to Thompson — mostly upon the recommendations of the utility companies themselves.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the developer in the Neosho County wind project as RWE, rather than Apex. The Sentinel regrets the error.

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