After long fight, Douglas County wind farm gets green light

 

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TUSCOLA — Construction crews are already heading to Douglas County, where board members voted Wednesday in favor of giving EDP Renewables a permit to build a 48-turbine wind-farm complex.

Within hours of the long-awaited vote, EDP officials said the work to upgrade public roads to handle the construction activity is expected to begin within the next couple of weeks.

"I think the board in general is just relieved that we have come to this point, and I honestly think that all of us feel like our vote was the right vote," board Chairman Don Munson said soon after Wednesday's 5-1-1 vote, which brought a relatively quiet end to a long and at-times-loud process.

Munson was one of the five board members who voted in favor of issuing the wind farm a permit, while the lone "no" vote came from Mary "Bibby" Appleby. A seventh member, Tom Glenn, abstained because he lives within the footprint of the wind farm and may lease land to EDP.

Munson said he anticipated this result after Tuesday, when three county board members who serve on the wind farm permit application subcommittee voted to recommend that the full board sign off on the application.

Wednesday's vote had been postponed by about two weeks after a required public hearing on the issue drew a large crowd and a lot of public comments — both for and against the project.

"We actually postponed our first planned vote, because there was a lot of good comment, and quite frankly, the board wanted to do just a little more groundwork to see if we could try to ask the EDP people to make some additional changes to their application," Munson said. "And they did that."

Representatives of the Houston-based energy company have said throughout the process that the 200-megawatt project will generate enough power for about 70,000 homes. Over a 30-year period, they added, it will provide $50 million in tax revenue to Douglas County and other taxing bodies and lead to the creation of about 250 jobs, with eight to 10 permanent workers maintaining the complex that will stretch across mostly farmland in Murdock and Newman townships.

Those townships are where strong opposition to the project gained steam last summer, with some concerned about potential negative impacts on property values for those within the wind farm footprint as well as safety issues for those who live near the turbines.

Both townships wrote and approved their own wind farm zoning regulations, which were more stringent than the Douglas County regulations created about a decade ago. Those in favor argued for the economic benefit of the project, particularly all of the tax revenue for schools, townships and the county.

Those who supported the township zoning regulations wanted longer distances between the turbines and primary structures, including houses, as well as more regulations about what would happen to the turbines if the wind farm shut down.

EDP responded with lawsuits against both townships, arguing that lengthier setbacks would make it impossible to site a wind farm and that county zoning superseded township rules.

But both matters were settled this spring after state legislators passed a bill clarifying that only counties — not townships — can regulate wind farms through zoning.

The changes that county officials asked EDP for in the last two weeks did not cover setbacks. Those remain at 1,000 feet — the distance originally required by Douglas County ordinance.

But the recent changes did include increased cost estimates for dismantling of the complex if it ceases operation. The company agreed to increase the dollar amount of the decommissioning performance bond and bear any additional costs of chemical application incurred by farmers who are not leasing land to EDP.

Munson said some crop dusting contractors refuse to fly within a wind farm. Others will, but only at additional cost, he added.

That extra cost, Munson said, should be borne by the wind farm folks, not by the adjacent landowner.

Chris Brooks, EDP's director of project management, said this was one of the most rigorous permitting processes EDP has experienced.

"We are so pleased to have met the requirements of Douglas County, and we look forward to being a good, long-term community partner over the life of the project," he added.