ERIE — A newly appointed Neosho County commissioner took a stand in favor of the Neosho Ridge Wind project if a good deal is possible and also warned the county could face a lawsuit over the issue.

Commissioner David Orr, appointed after the resignation of ex-wife Jennifer Orr, said Thursday evening that he is in favor of the project if officials can put the right deal together.

But he warned he does not think the developer, Apex Clean Energy, will simply go away if officials cannot agree on agreements for road use, decommissioning and payments in lieu of taxes.

“Apex is not going anywhere,” Orr said, adding that the county could face a class-action lawsuit over loss of income if the deal falls through.

“I don’t want to challenge them in court,” Orr said. “Can we win?”

During public comment, Commissioner Paul Westhoff and Orr heard from both sides of the debate over the proposed project to construct 139 wind-powered electrical generators on 44,000 acres leased in the southwest portion of Neosho County near Thayer and Galesburg.

The public comment portion was structured for people to come forward and give their names.

The commissioners then heard from Shirley Estrada, who read from a prepared statement with several questions. During her portion as part of the regular agenda business, Orr said he would respond afterward.

While Orr then addressed the audience, several people interrupted without identifying themselves to counter his statements and the discussion grew more heated. At one point, Orr said he might have the sheriff remove people.

The Tribune requested a copy of Estrada’s written presentation from Randall Neely, county clerk, but it was not yet available at press time.

During the presentation, Estrada asked if Apex had made thinly veiled or outright threats.

County Counselor Seth Jones mentioned a letter from Apex he said commissioners received months ago, which Orr also mentioned. The Tribune has also requested a copy of this letter.

Orr said Apex only stated what its rights are.

“Apex has indicated that they will sue the county,” Estrada said.

She also discussed print and Facebook advertisements that suggest one commissioner would vote in favor of the project and would be critical.

“Apex knew before they set foot in Neosho County that they needed these three agreements,” Estrada said.

She also questioned Orr about his statements for a preference on information in wind farms in Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Arkansas, states within a certain radius of Neosho County. Orr later added Iowa and said the state has similar crops and geography and that he has been there and been involved in lease agreements there.

Estrada estimated that Kansas has nearly 3,000 generating windmills; Oklahoma has 3,900, but Missouri and Arkansas have far fewer to compare.

“Arkansas is a much better solar state than it is a wind state,” Orr said. “Where do you draw the line?”

Estrada said she is not telling anyone how to run a business but asked if the commission should have to “browbeat” Apex for information.

“Does it concern you that Apex may have something to hide?” Estrada said.

During the public commentary, Jamie Gates said she wanted safe setbacks and took issue with a Facebook posting by Orr.

“I’m not the enemy of wind,” she said. The posting, which she said has been deleted, reportedly referred to opponents as tormented, lost souls.

“I myself am not a tormented, lost soul,” she said. “We are fighting a corporation that paints us negatively every chance they get.”

John Altman mentioned a devastating fire in northwest Oklahoma in April and said a windmill had caught fire a month earlier. He asked what would happen if the wind turbine had caused the later fire and asked if fire suppression systems were installed.

He said a windmill near Weatherford, Oklahoma, suffered a fire and said three causes of turbine failures were blade failure, fire and tower failure. He said windmills can throw blades up to 4,200 feet.

Bryan Coover asked about blade failure reports and acoustic information he previously sought from Apex.

“I suspect you’re never going to get it,” he said. 

He also related a story about the sale of a property in the planned area that fell through because the buyer did not want to be near windmills and could not sell his own property near windmills. Coover said property value issues are already happening.

Julie Johnson said people on both sides agree on important issues.

“If we all agree to Apex’s claims, what’s wrong with accountability?” she said. 

Johnson, like several speakers, requested setbacks of 2,000 feet from property lines of nonleasing landowners and 4,000 feet from a residence.

Westhoff said he would consider a 2,000-foot setback.

Doug Reed said funding to schools under the PILOT agreement is considered a gift, but after the project gets on the tax rolls, it is handled differently. He said the increase in local tax revenue offsets decreases in state funding.

He also said commissioners need to know a design of the project footprint because of the decrease in property values.

“You need to know how much tax money you’re going to lose from these houses,” he said.

Dustie Elsworth said a wind generator project in Coffey County has contributed little compared to the Wolf Creek nuclear power plant.

“All we’re saying is, there needs to be accountability,” he said. “They will not touch the setback issue. It’s not too much to ask for.” 

He also said he requested a summary of a wildlife study on his property and claimed that he was told he would need to sign a nondisclosure agreement that he would not share it with the public.

The commission also heard from several people in favor of the project.

Todd Umbarger asked the commission to keep an open mind.

“Revenue in the county is very much needed,” he said, noting how much it would help schools.

Ron Vyhlidal provided an article in a Linn County electrical co-op magazine, “Country Living,” about a youth event on wind power. He also commented on the resignations of Jennifer Orr and David Bideau, commissioners he said leaned toward the project.

“It sure seems funny we lost two commissioners,” he said. He said the public needs to keep its nose out of commission business.

“You guys ought to be left alone and make a decision,” he said.

Thayer Mayor Tony Vining said the town council is passing a measure to represent people in and around the town.

“Neosho County businesses need the revenue,” supporter Vern Halton said.

Others agreed. 

“If you’re claiming our county does not need revenue, you’ve kind of got your head in the sand,” Toni Carter said. “Our county thrives on commerce. We not only speak it, but we’d like to walk the walk, too.”

Retired teacher Don Young said schools need the assistance and he favors the wind energy project.

“Where would you be without thousands and thousands of electric poles?” Linda Howton said.

Afterward, during his response, Orr said when he came in as commissioner he wanted to treat everybody equally.

“I came here to help you all,” he said. “All I do is get picked on.”

“David Bideau is my hero,” Orr continued. “He took a lot of blows.”

Orr said the commissioner Facebook page was set up to provide meeting information, not to bash or support either side. He took over the page from Jennifer Orr and turned editing over to county Emergency Management Director Melanie Kent-Culp.

He said he posted the resignation letters of Jennifer Orr and Bideau and said the common denominator was that they faced judgment that they would be accused of wrongdoing.

“They both have been run out because of fear,” Umbarger said.

Orr asked for a show of hands from those who flat-out did not want the wind project under any circumstances and who wanted it. County Clerk Randal Neely counted 18 opposed, almost all seated on the north side of the room, and 21 in favor on the south side.

Orr said most of the conflict he has experienced came from wind project opponents.

One man, who did not give his name and left before he could be asked, questioned who intimidated Jennifer Orr.

“How do you know it’s the opposition?” he said. “If you don’t have facts, would you quit blaming people?”

He also urged people to find a compromise.

“I want a compromise that makes both sides happy,” he said.

“You can’t compromise safety,” Coover countered.

Orr said an Allen County project has setbacks of 1,400 feet or twice the height of the 590-foot windmills, whichever is greater, from nonparticipating homes.

Apex has offered 1,650 feet from nonparticipating homes.

Orr mentioned a 1905 article about kerosene and gas-lighting suppliers opposed to electricity in Chanute, which the article said would be a flash in the pan. He compared that to the wind energy projects.

“I don’t fear them like a lot of people do,” he said.

He said the issue has gotten legs on both sides of the fence. Orr said if it goes a very little distance further, people would wake up with regrets.

“After the fact, we can’t come back,” he said. “We’re getting really close to zero.”

One audience member suggested a vote of the people who are in the project area, but Orr said it is time to bring the controversy to an end.

“What makes you think they can’t put it in?” he said.

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