OSWEGO — Discussion of a proposed wind development took a couple of turns Monday at the Labette County Commission meeting.
To begin the meeting, Commissioner Lonie Addis again requested a moratorium, a request that failed to get a second at previous meetings. On Monday, Commissioner Cole Proehl seconded Addis’ motion, which ultimately failed, for the sake of discussion.
Addis wanted a 21-month moratorium, which would run to the end of his term as a commissioner, in January 2023. He said commissioners received a lot of good information at recent meetings, mentioning what Gilbert Burnett and Shirley Estrada brought forward at commission and community meetings. He said the moratorium would put the county in a better negotiating position with RWE, the German utility company that’s exploring the wind farm possibility.
Commissioner Brian Kinzie, in whose district the wind farm would be, said commissioners have heard from people in and near the proposed wind development, which is from 8000 Road north to 19000 Road and from Douglas Road east to Meade Road.
“We get it. We understand their concerns,” Kinzie said. He wondered where the county would be with RWE with a moratorium.
“We need to someday sit down and talk to them. We got to know what they’re going to offer before we can make a judgment on it,” Kinzie said.
Addis said he thought it better to apply the brakes to the project.
Proehl asked if this would be a blanket “no” no matter what.
Addis said no. The commission needs more time to examine things, including the health issues that Burnett brought up. He said commissioners have been invited now to visit two homes in Neosho County within the footprint of the Neosho Ridge Wind project.
Kinzie said the commission could visit those properties with or without a moratorium. He asked Addis if he was trying to neglect his duty by passing the decision to the next person elected in his district. Addis said he was not.
Proehl said Reno County voted no on wind farms and is facing two lawsuits. “And they’re coming,” he said of wind developments. He wondered if moratoriums were enforceable, and he disagreed that a moratorium would place the county in a better negotiating position.
“I’m tired of dragging this out,” Kinzie said. He wants to see what RWE has to offer. He added that County Counselor Brian Johnson had contacted RWE and has not received a response. “I think the ball’s in their court.”
Addis then asked for a vote on his motion. It died 1-2, with Addis the only yes.
After the commission completed its agenda and paid bills, Addis asked the people attending the meeting (the seats were full and more chairs were brought out) if they had questions. He said he didn’t want to hear comments that the commission has heard before. If someone had a new topic to bring up related to the wind farm, he would give them the floor. What followed was a 45-minute discussion during which Proehl became upset and left the room, returning a short time later.
Trace Goodwin spoke first. He said he lives in Neosho County but was raised in rural Edna and works south of Edna. He told commissioners he and his wife were looking to return to the Edna area, depending on how the wind development issue goes.
He questioned commissioners on ethics. He read portions of the code of ethical conduct from the Kansas County Commissioners Association. In summary, the document reads that being a commissioner requires allegiance to the law and that commissioners should follow high standards of ethical conduct. He asked commissioners if they discussed a specific code of ethics. Kinzie and Addis told Goodwin about their schooling on ethics. Proehl was not given a chance to respond.
Goodwin then read the principles from the KCCA ethics document and asked if this was a reasonable code of ethics for commissioners.
“What is this?” Proehl asked.
“Hey!” Goodwin said.
“Excuse me?” Proehl responded.
“I’m asking questions,” Goodwin responded.
“But I don’t answer to him as a Neosho County resident,” Proehl said, adding that Goodwin should not address the commission, make demands and be rude. Addis said he didn’t think Goodwin was being rude. Kinzie said he was being rude.
Proehl told Goodwin to make his point.
Goodwin asked commissioners if they applied the KCCA rules to ethical questions.
Addis and Kinzie said yes. Proehl said he follows state laws and didn’t understand why Goodwin was asking the questions.
“Do you have an issue with an ethics discussion?” Goodwin asked Proehl.
Goodwin read from the document that a commissioner should perform duties fairly and impartially, free of influences of family members and abstain from voting even if not required by law if their impartiality is questioned.
Goodwin then presented information. He said Kinzie’s son purchased 46.32 acres of land in 2018 and was approached in 2019 by RWE and received paperwork for a possible lease of that parcel. The land is outside the existing footprint of the development at 6000 Road and K-101. Goodwin then noted that Kinzie, before he was elected commissioner, commented favorable about the wind development at a February 2020 meeting of the county’s wind farm advisory committee. Goodwin quoted some of the information that Kinzie brought up at that meeting. In May 2020, Kinzie filed for election to the 2nd District seat and won. He was the only candidate. Goodwin asked if he put his name on the ballot so he could vote on the wind development.
“I didn’t know if I would have a vote,” Kinzie said. He added that he didn’t know about his son’s dealings when he purchased the land that was formerly his son’s grandfather’s farm.
Goodwin asked Kinzie if his son could potentially benefit from the lease if he signs it.
Kinzie’s son said officially that he has no intention of signing the lease at this time and does not support the project in its current state. Until the project becomes more lucrative for the entire county he has no plans to support it, according to the statement, which Kinzie mentioned Monday.
“I’m not disagreeing with anything you’re saying. I don’t know what you want to know,” Kinzie told Goodwin. Goodwin asked if is it reasonable for anyone to question his impartiality on the matter because of his son’s lease paperwork.
“No. Anybody that knows me doesn’t have to question,” Kinzie said. “Anybody that wants to question me they can question me.”
Goodwin asked if a commissioner should abstain from voting even if not required to by law if his or her impartiality is reasonably questioned.
Kinzie said his son wouldn’t benefit much from a lease at $7 an acre, which would equate to $324 a year. As the discussion continued in the commission room, Proehl left the room, which Addis asked the county clerk to note in the commission minutes.
Goodwin asked Kinzie if it’s correct for a reasonable person to question his impartiality.
Kinzie said he didn’t have a problem with that. Goodwin wanted a yes or no answer, but Kinzie said he answered the question.
Goodwin said he did not mean for his questions to appear personal on the matter. Goodwin has known Kinzie for years and Kinzie cut his hair when he was younger, he said.
“This has got to be causing you stress. I mean it has to be,” Goodwin said. But, “you are held at a higher standard.”
Kinzie said he knew that and he accepted all challenges. Goodwin asked if this was an ethical dilemma for Kinzie.
“No, it’s not,” Kinzie said.
Goodwin said they would have to agree to disagree.
“I guess so because I know the difference between ethical and unethical. And I show courtesy for that,” Kinzie said.
Proehl returned to the meeting and Goodwin apologized if he made him angry. He said he appreciated the commissioners taking the time to attend the community meetings. He said both commissioners spoke about the health of the citizens when running for office. Proehl asked Goodwin what one issue from a wind farm is causing death. Goodwin said he mentioned health problems, not death. He said a girl in Galesburg suffered migraines in the last year and now she’s getting seizures. It’s unknown if they are tied to the Neosho County wind development, he said.
Proehl spoke about Labette County’s health ranking that gets updated each year. Out of 105 counties, Labette County is 96th in the state for the health of its citizens.
“We die in Labette County 3.3 years sooner than everywhere else,” Proehl said, and 125 citizens die prematurely in the county. The biggest factor contributing to the health rankings is children living in poverty, he said. He said the wind development is not about dollars and cents, or bridges or pay raises.
“It’s about children living in poverty. 23% of kids in Labette County live in poverty,” Proehl said.
Citizens need more opportunities to rise above the poverty in the county. He said some people choose to live in a larger city with more opportunities.
“But the children of the rest of the county sometimes they don’t have a choice. So I’m trying to provide them with the best opportunities that are available,” Proehl said. He wants to see if the wind development would help that. “If I can help that way then we need to look at it.”
Addis asked the media attending if they had questions.
The Sun then asked Kinzie if he thought he should be involved in the discussion and decision making on the wind development based on what Goodwin asked.
“Yes I do. Because No. 1, unless it becomes lucrative and we want to move forward, my son has no intention of signing the contract,” Kinzie said.
He was asked what would make the agreement lucrative enough for the commission to move forward.
Kinzie responded that it’s the same issues discussed before, the health of the residents, the roads, the dollars that RWE pays in lieu of taxes and that the wind turbines will eventually go on the tax rolls. He said RWE is signing 30-year agreements.
“So at least we’re going to have a tax base for 30 years from it if not longer,” Kinzie said.
The Sun asked Kinzie how commissioners would justify making a decision to approve agreements with RWE when a group of citizens inside the footprint would have to live with turbines over their heads.
“That goes back to if I personally feel like it’s worth going forward. Today would be no. I have no interest in signing an agreement today” because commissioners haven’t discovered all the issues related to the development and what RWE could offer the county, Kinzie said.
The Sun asked Proehl how the wind development could help bring Labette County citizens out of poverty and improve health.
“It would be part of a larger plan. You bring something in that can lower the overall tax base,” Proehl said. If a large amount of money came in from the project, property taxes could be lowered. If the county had lower property taxes, additional businesses may consider locating in the county, bringing jobs and opportunities. Economic development is more likely with a lower tax rate.
“With our high taxes right now, it’s difficult to recruit a business to move here. It’s difficult to recruit doctors here,” Proehl said.
The county has lost 35% of its population over last four years, he said. But it has the same infrastructure for the fewer people. The Katy Railroad was bought out, the Kansas Army Ammunition Plant closed.
“There was nothing to replace those. Is this the best answer? Is this perfect? Absolutely not. Is it the right answer? I don’t know. We have to look at it. And that’s what I want to do,” Proehl said.
He said he understands how personal this is to the citizens. But who gets hurt if the commission makes a bad choice? Who gets hurt if the commission does nothing? he asked.
“That’s what I worry about. If we turn this down and we try to keep it out, are we able to do that in the end? They’re coming anyway,” Proehl said.
He would like to see more money for schools and lower taxes. The hospital has difficulty recruiting doctors because of high property taxes. But the wind development would not be the only answer. It may help. Great Plains Industrial Park’s growth helps. Having a hospital in the county that becomes a regional medical center would help.
“I think we could do a lot of things. And it’s not because it’s easy or that I don’t care about the people of Edna. It’s because I want the best thing for Labette County. And the best opportunities for us all. This is hard as hell. I did not expect this to be this difficult,” Proehl said.
Labette County USD 506 Superintendent John Wyrick asked Edna Mayor Sam Vail about a discussion among the city council. Both attended Monday’s meeting and Wyrick has been a frequent attendee. Vail said he’s been exploring the possibility of creating an extraterritorial zone around the town similar to the zone around Parsons that guides development. Parsons planners voted to not allow wind development in the 3-mile zone around the city. Vail said he has researched the issue and asked city council members to research it but the process of instituting a zone around the city is expensive and there have been no official talks about it.
Proehl said he would like to see a reasonable distance set between wind development and cities and towns.
After the meeting, Proehl explained that he walked out because he was upset that a citizen from another county was lecturing him on ethics. He also didn’t want to say something he would regret.
Kinzie said his son leases out the land in question north of Edna and the person who rents it owns property around it, including land in the proposed project footprint. The owner of this neighboring land suggested to RWE’s representative that as a courtesy he should call Kinzie’s son about leasing his ground as well. RWE is looking to lease neighboring land outside the footprint, Kinzie said. Speculation has been that Kinzie’s son’s land would be used for a substation, but Kinzie said the substation likely would be north on K-101 closer to power lines that cross the highway and inside the development.