Plan commission listens to views on wind farms

As members of the Huntington County Plan Commission look on, Archie Lintz, a member of Huntington County Concerned Citizens, reads his comments from the podium during the Plan Commission’s workshop on the wind farm ordinance, held Wednesday, May 14.
As members of the Huntington County Plan Commission look on, Archie Lintz, a member of Huntington County Concerned Citizens, reads his comments from the podium during the Plan Commission’s workshop on the wind farm ordinance, held Wednesday, May 14. Photo by Rebecca Sandlin.

Twenty-three people lined up to give their opinions Wednesday, May 14, as members of the Huntington County Plan Commission listened to their views on wind farms.

The plan commission scheduled the special workshop, held in the Huntington North High School Auditorium, to allow the public to weigh in on the county's existing wind energy conversion system ordinance. The ordinance establishes guidelines for items such as setback distances, safety design, installation standards and decommissioning for wind turbines.

Commission members got plenty of feedback as homeowners and others demanded changes to the ordinance.

Apex Clean Energy has indicated interest in establishing a wind energy development, Plum Tree Wind, in southeast Huntington County. That project could include as many as 65 wind turbines.

About 200 people attended the meeting, many of them wearing red shirts to show their solidarity against having a wind farm in Huntington County. Some, members of the Huntington County Concerned Citizens group, passed out fliers to people coming into the high school, while others held up signs during the meeting.

While there were about a half-dozen people who spoke in favor of the wind farm, most comments were either in favor of amending the ordinance or against the project altogether.

Most speakers said they were concerned about setbacks being far enough away from property lines, the noise made by turbines, possible health concerns and who would be financially responsible for decommissioning the wind turbines if they fail or the company goes out of business.

John Shuttleworth, president of Huntington County Concerned Citizens, said the ordinance should be amended because technology has changed since the existing ordinance was passed in 2009, specifically the heights of turbines, setback allowances and noise.

"In 2009, turbines are nowhere near the height they are today," he said. "... The ordinance needs to be amended to have a setback of 3,160 feet, which doubles the distance, including ‘shadow flicker.' If you make the setback that far, it should take care of shadow flicker."

Brad Barton, of Roanoke, said he read the ordinance and is in favor of having a wind farm here after visiting one in southern Indiana.

"I stopped and listened, and my motorcycle and my air conditioner are louder," he said. "I think it's a good location for a wind farm. I think it's great for local jobs, good for the school system and I think it's good for our taxpayers in general."

Archie Lintz, a spokesman for Huntington County Concerned Citizens, said scrap metal from decommissioning turbines may cause the county additional expense and even be hazardous to health.

"A bond or letter of credit will not insure turbines will be properly decommissioned in the event of company insolvency ... The only safe thing for our county would be an escrow account," Lintz added. "I'm the first generation of my family to live and grow up in Huntington County ... I have a son who represents the second generation and his wife, and the third generation in the form of my grandchildren, and there's another generation after that. And I hope that they all find Huntington County a good place to live, and I don't want any damn turbines in it."

Citizens for Wind Power spokesman Luke Vickrey said the commissioners formed a well-thought-out ordinance back in 2009.

"Now the largest economic development the county has ever seen is at our doorstep," he said. "What message is sent to those potential companies looking to make Huntington County home if we are going to revisit every ordinance that might affect those businesses?"

At times the commission and the speakers seemed to be at cross-purposes when some of them strayed from talking about the ordinance, causing Plan Commission President Jim Sprowl to remind them to stick to the topic. Other times he admonished the audience against yelling or clapping during the speakers' comments.
The plan commission allowed speakers to "donate" time from their allotted comment period to John Paul, who spoke for about 20 minutes against the ordinance and against the proposed development.

Paul, a vocal opponent of wind farms who said he has studied wind turbines for the past six years, likened them to the Washington Monument, which he said is roughly the same height as 11 50-foot stacked concrete silos.

"There you have the height that the wind turbines pose at Plum Tree. ... It will be just about as bad as seeing that Washington Monument there," he said. "The ordinance is confusing and contradictory ... the taxpayers are paying for it."

Rob Propes, development manager for Apex, said his company is committed to making sure that any project built in Huntington County serves the residents of the community. He said the current ordinance takes great pains to protect citizens, ensure fiscal responsibility to taxpayers and respect the rights of local farmers.

Propes added that technology has changed, making turbines quieter with studies showing no adverse impact from noise.

When asked, Propes said Apex plans continue negotiating land leases for the Plum Tree project, with the hopes of assembling enough land to submit an application to the county. However, he said, the final decision rests on whether - and how drastically - the ordinance is changed.

"At that time we'll look at what the ordinance says and decide," he said. "If they make some minor tweaks that doesn't materially hurt the project, sure. If they make any major overhauls to the ordinance that materially affects our ability to build out a project, and the landowners' ability to have a turbine, then it would make the project infeasible."

County Commissioner Larry Buzzard, who is also a member of the Plan Commission, said he appreciated so many people coming to the meeting and speaking their views on the subject.

"I was encouraged. I think everybody was respectful of each other's opinions. I think there was a pretty good representation on concerns and issues," he said. "I've talked to most of the people who spoke tonight and had a conversation in person, on the telephone or through email."

Sprowl said he, too, was excited by the turnout. He said those who participated will help the plan commission in its decision on whether to amend the ordinance. However, he said he didn't hear any new arguments presented from the 23 who spoke.

"I think that there is probably a group of people who just flat don't like windmills," Sprowl said. "My biggest thing that I hear people say is, ‘We can't let them build them if they're going to go broke.'

"Now there is not one other building ordinance that I've worked with when I do a site plan where we ask the guy if he's going to make money, and if he's not going to make money he's got to pay to tear the building down. We do with these (wind turbines), which I think is right. But we don't look at somebody's books to see if they're profitable before we grant them a permit."

Huntington Countywide Department of Community Development Executive Director Mark Mussman explained the process to amend the ordinance still has many stops in the road before it can be changed:

• After a public hearing by the county Plan Commission on the request to amend the wind energy conversion system ordinance, plan commissioners will deliberate and come to a decision as to whether the ordinance should be amended.

• If the plan commission decides the ordinance needs to be changed, it will then make a recommendation to the Huntington County Commissioners. The Plan Commission can make its own suggestions as to amendments when it sends the recommendation to the county commissioners.

• Another public hearing can be held by the county commissioners to invite personal testimony and written comments on the recommendation and any proposed changes. County commissioners can also make their own amendments to the ordinance.

• If county commissioners make any changes they must be remanded to the Plan Commission for review, and another public hearing will be held on those proposed changes.

• The decision on whether to amend the ordinance rests with the county commissioners.

Mussman says an application for special exception to zoning regulations, if it is made by Apex Clean Energy, would be heard by the County Board of Zoning Appeals.
The BZA would hold a public hearing of its own before it decides to approve or deny the company's application.

If the BZA approves the application, Apex would then submit a development plan to the Plan Commission for review and approval. No public hearing would be required.
The Plan Commission will hold a public hearing on a request to amend the wind energy ordinance on Wednesday, June 11, at 6:30 p.m. in the GAR Room at the Huntington County Courthouse.