Community Divide Remains After Reno County Denies Permit For New Wind Farm
Members of the group Keep Reno Heavenly showed a mix of emotions after the Reno County Commission denied NextEra Energy a permit to build a wind farm in the southeastern part of the county.
On one hand, all of its efforts had paid off. Members of the group had worked for months to organize and participate in public hearings, and they finally got the result they wanted — the proposed 220 megawatt wind farm with more than 80 turbines reaching 500 feet in the air would not be built.
On the other, the fight created a divide in the community.
Several people felt like their health and safety were being trampled for a little bit of money. And even though the permit was denied, the fact that their neighbors still disagree with them about something they feel strongly about left an impression.
“I’m happy so far,” said Nick Egli, who opposed the project. “But we’re all pretty sure it’s not over yet.”
While two of the three members of the Reno County Commission were in favor of granting NextEra a permit, Thursday night’s vote needed to be unanimous after landowners near the project filed enough protest petitions to change the threshold.
Typically, the three-member commission only needs a majority to grant a conditional use permit.
Commissioner Ron Hirst was the only vote against the permit. He said he’s not against wind energy, but putting a wind farm in the southeast corner of the county would negatively impact future growth in a place he feels has potential.
But Commission Chair Bob Bush said rejecting this kind of development because a few people don’t like the way turbines look will send a statement that Reno County isn’t interested in attracting growth.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “but just staring at a deer in your field is not sustained economic growth.”
This is one of only a few instances in Kansas where a county commission rejected a permit for a wind farm.
NextEra Energy has worked to develop the project for several years. The site, located northeast of Cheney Reservoir, had strong, consistent winds; was near transmission lines that could take the energy to Wichita and beyond, and had enough landowners willing to lease their land for turbine sites.
NextEra developer Spencer Jenkins said the company tried to work with members of the community who had concerns. It held community information sessions and even met with several people individually.
The final proposal included several changes — including eliminating multiple turbines near a private airstrip — in an effort to compromise and ease concerns. The plan even called for turbines to be no closer than 2,000 feet to any home on land not participating in the project, which would have been the second-largest setback in the state.
But the effort didn’t seem to change the minds of many people opposed to the project — a group spurred by misinformation being spread through social media about potential health threats and declines in property value, according to NextEra.
“There’s really nothing you can do,” Jenkins said. “When someone wants to make up their mind regardless of the facts, it’s difficult to fight that.”
The decision also impacts the landowners who had already leased their land and were excited about the prospect of an additional source of income.
NextEra officials said the project would have provided about $50 million in lease payments over its 30-year lifespan. It also would have generated an estimated $39 million in tax revenue and payments for Reno County.
Roland Elpers leased some of his land to the company. Before the meeting, he felt confident commissioners would approve it.
“I can’t believe that the commissioners are going to turn down the tax money that this is going to mean for Reno County,” he said.
The decision to not allow the wind farm to be developed is a little ironic. Reno County officials created a wind energy commission more than 10 years ago with the purpose of taking advantage of the economic potential of the wind industry in Kansas.
The group’s work helped attract Siemens-Gamesa Renewable Energy, which built a wind turbine manufacturing plant in Hutchinson. The plant recently announced an expansion.
“Siemens did not give us the economic benefit we’d hoped for, but they have given us a tremendous economic benefit that we didn’t have before.” said Bush, the commissioner.
Another goal was to attract a wind farm developer.
A spokesman for NextEra Energy said the company is disappointed in the decision and is reviewing its options for moving forward, which includes challenging the decision in court.
Brian Grimmett reports on the environment and energy for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on Twitter @briangrimmett or email grimmett (at) kmuw (dot) org.
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