ST. PAUL — Some people have questioned why Apex Clean Energy would want to build wind turbines in Southeast Kansas.
Lack of zoning regulations in Neosho County could be one of the greatest enticements for the company, according to information shared with Neosho County residents Tuesday night at Tony’s Function Junction near St. Paul.
Anderson County residents Dane Hicks and Burk Peterson spoke to citizens at the event center who have raised concerns about the Neosho Ridge Wind project that is proposed in a footprint covering land between Galesburg and Thayer.
Hicks and Peterson were part of a group of Anderson County residents who fought a wind company that wanted to build a wind farm there by using the county’s zoning regulations. Residents in neighboring Coffey County warned them to get off their hands and do something to keep the wind farms out. They, in turn, are warning Neosho County residents, whose only option at this point to stop the wind farm project appears to be zoning or road use permits.
In the last four months, residents in Thayer, Galesburg and Erie have learned that the Neosho Ridge Wind project was more than a proposal they heard talk of in 2016.
The company at the time was considering Neosho County as one of three locations in the state to build a wind farm.
Company surveys to determine resident support were conducted in the last few months, raising resident awareness, but only after the company had already secured more than 100 leases in the county to build the wind farm.
Belief in clean energy, the potential revenue for the county and added income for some landowners garnered support in the early going, while others began to research wind farms and found the negatives may outweigh the positives in many counties and states.
Peterson said he works for Mike Burns, who has several companies, including Woody Outdoors, and it owns 3,400 acres in Anderson County. It is one of the first companies the wind turbine group spoke to when it tried to get into Anderson County. Like many other travelers, Peterson saw wind turbines in western Kansas on the open prairie and thought it looked cool, but he knew nothing about wind energy. When approached by company representatives, Burns and Peterson heard there was money to be made and began to look into it.
“We did a little studying, a little research, and didn’t like what we found,” Peterson said. “We started looking into how it might affect our neighbors because at the end of the day we all have to ride on the same rock spinning around the sun. Everything we researched about windmills, we found it is the direct result of a political process. Essentially, the EPA force-mandated (that) power be green and a certain amount must be purchased by the power companies. This is one way; solar is another.”
What they discovered is those residents moving into the county were building homes in the country, looking for a little slice of heaven, where they had country views and small-town connections to people, churches and civic organizations. And they would be adversely affected if Burns allowed wind turbines on his land.
“Everything that we found that came along with windmills, that Mike and I researched together, only affected our neighbors. The biggest problem I had with this thing is when I started looking at the contract,” Peterson said.
He hired a lawyer to look at the contract. The attorney asked him if it was a joke, saying no one would sign the contract because it was so one-sided in favor of the company.
The contracts took rights from landowners and gave them to the company, leaving the landowner to have to seek approval to do anything. Landowners lost the ability to borrow against their land. Around 70 people already had signed the contracts, and most of them without an attorney.
Peterson encouraged everyone at Tuesday’s meeting who had not signed a contract and were considering it to hire a lawyer and to review the contract. He also encouraged them to push their county commissioners to implement zoning laws for everyone’s protection.
Without zoning the wind farm will be difficult to regulate and hard to prevent, Peterson and Hicks said.
“And if it happens, it is going to make it impossible to remove,” Peterson said.
He said the average wind farm changes hands three times in the first year after completion. The one in Coffey County sold four times.
“I’m an accountant by trade, and I can create you an LLC on my cellphone in five minutes. I can also close it down in three days with the internet. They sell, they come and go, so the guy standing in front of you today with a contract, promising you X, Y, Z and promising your county commissioners they will pay for the removal and pilot payments … it’s a different guy in a year, or it could be,” Peterson said. “You are taking the word of someone that is only there to get a subsidy. … The key word for subsidies is they only have to start construction. Once they have the profit, they don’t want to operate it because they operate at a loss. That is one of the key things we looked at is why build a windmill?”
Subsidies are extensive. An estimate by the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation puts the total cost to American taxpayers who provided tax credits for subsidies between 2016 and 2020 at $23.7 billion.
Many worry if a bond of $3 million on each windmill would protect the county when it’s time to decommission the turbines in 20 to 25 years. Companies usually try to convince counties it costs much less, around $60,000, once profit of recycling the windmills is subtracted, so a larger bond isn’t needed. Figures presented may be misleading, given the cost to raze and recycle the turbines, Peterson said.
More than anything, Peterson said, his concern is for others when they considered leasing land to the wind company.
“If you can build a windmill on your land and not harm anybody else, then that is your right, I think,” Peterson said.
He said he does not believe it is right for someone to build a windmill that will affect a neighbor’s property values, especially when the neighbor did not want a windmill on his or her property.
He explained how wind turbines could affect neighbors negatively.
Not only would wind turbines dot the countryside, they would impact what neighbors could do with their property based on the location of turbines on the leaser’s property. There was the flicker causing problems for people with epilepsy and migraines, the decibel levels that they experienced by visiting wind farms and interference with radio frequency signals, Peterson said.
While it has not been proven scientifically, some people who live near the ultralow-frequency turbines report health problems.
There are the other issues, like the studies showing the turbines run off some wildlife and kill other wildlife including bald eagles and bats.
Despite the negatives, the money promised in the struggling economies of rural Kansas cause many to sign the leases.
Payments in lieu of taxes to small counties like Neosho County are tempting, he said. Because the wind energy projects are tax exempt, they make these payments.
Peterson spoke about taxes.
“Let’s say one of these windmills costs $2 million to build at least. If they taxed that at a regular commercial equipment rate, how many tax dollars would your county actually receive? Millions upon millions. That is why the lobbyists, who got the tax credits for the subsidy, also lobbied that they are exempt.”
“When you talk about testing something for a positive effect in society versus a negative effect, my scales are leaning, but I didn’t start out that way,” Peterson said. “I didn’t know the difference. Then you talk about how do you govern something like this. We’ve got zoning laws, and zoning is where my specialty came in.”
“Zoning laws are literally public segregation of property use, so we don’t hate each other,” Peterson said.
Zoning laws segregate the county into land use — agricultural, residential, commercial and industrial.
“If you guys don’t have that, you really need to get on that,” he said. “It not only governs, but it protects.”
The acid test had three parts.
Is it consistent with the land use around it?
“No it’s not. It’s a power plant. People like to call it a wind farm because it sounds sexy and agricultural, but it’s a power plant,” Peterson said.
Does it adversely affect surrounding landowners?
“I say it does,” Peterson said, based on his research and experiences with neighboring Coffey County.
Last on the acid test is once built, will it harm the neighboring property owner?
“There is nothing in proper zoning laws that these things meet,” he said. “They do not pass a single part of the acid test. Under zoning laws it was pretty easy to fight that way. There is not a single federal, state or local zoning law acid test that the windmills pass.”
Neosho County Commissioner Paul Westhoff, who attended Tuesday’s meeting, noted that the county counselor had advised against implementing zoning because of the unintended effects it can have on residents, but the visitors from Anderson County warned of many more unintended effects that will impact residents from allowing in the wind farm.
The issue is already dividing Neosho County residents into those for, those against and those who don’t care one way or the other because they are not affected. The men from Anderson County said the same happened there, pitting neighbor against neighbor and dividing families.