OSWEGO — Commissioners in Labette County want to form a committee to research wind farms and issues related to them and are considering other options that may include a moratorium.
The five-member committee would include the county Public Works director, one citizen from each of the three commission districts and perhaps another county employee who oversees zoning issues at Great Plains Industrial Park. A decision on these issues could come soon.
Commissioners discussed wind farm development in Labette County at length on Monday, including an hour visit with Neosho County Commissioner Paul Westhoff. Commissioner Lonie Addis asked Westhoff to attend over the entire board because Westhoff had been involved in the Neosho Ridge Wind LLC development from the start, while the other two commissioners were appointed this year after other commissioners resigned.
Commissioners have discussed wind farms periodically this year after a representative from E.ON, a utility company in Germany with an office in Austin, Texas, dropped off a business card. The discussion became more frequent after Commissioner Fred Vail and the county courthouse received letters this month from RWE. RWE is also a German utility company that develops renewable energy and bought the renewable energy assets from E.ON earlier this month. The representative who wrote the letter is in the county this week to visit with landowners about leasing land to the utility for wind turbines. Commission Chairman Doug Allen was to meet with him on Monday.
Westhoff discussed the Apex Clean Energy wind farm in southwest Neosho County and the 139 turbines it will have installed. The turbines will be up to 607 feet tall. Westhoff said all but two of the turbines are in his commission district. Road work is underway to prepare for the heavy equipment and wind turbine parts that will be hauled to all the sites.
Westhoff said he was neutral on Neosho Ridge to begin with, but he changed his mind after he conducted more research and study. Neosho County commissioners asked for studies on health impacts from turbines, infrasound, shadow flicker and wildlife impacts but never received anything from Apex, Westhoff said. Neosho County commissioners recently imposed a moratorium on future wind farm development, but that action will not impact Neosho Ridge.
Westhoff shared with commissioners copies of agreements between Neosho County and Apex. One agreement dealt with decommissioning, or taking down, the turbines once they’ve quit working or reached the end of their useful life. The contribution agreement, transmission agreement, the moratorium recently enacted and the road maintenance agreement were also included.
Allen asked about taking the turbines down. He asked if there was an escrow account set up so money would be available for decommissioning, a process that some estimate could be expensive, well into six figures. Allen said off-shore oil platforms had decommissioning agreements, but after the companies harvesting oil from the ocean floor sold the platforms, the last company owning them sometimes ended up in bankruptcy.
Labette County Counselor Brian Johnson asked Westhoff if commissioners received copies of lease agreements between landowners and Apex so that commissioners would know if landowners accepted any responsibility for decommissioning the turbine in 20 years. Westhoff said he wasn’t sure.
Johnson also asked if the Kansas Corporation Commission reviewed the decommissioning agreements and other contracts. They had not, Westhoff said. The Neosho County counselor and a Wichita attorney negotiated contracts with Apex, he said, and Apex paid their legal fees. Commissioner Addis didn’t think that payment arrangement should have been allowed.
Johnson also asked if Apex gave commissioners a completion of construction date. Westhoff said no. The agreement shows that Apex will deliver to the county a performance bond or letter of credit that will fund decommissioning of the wind farm, but this bond won’t be available until the 10-year anniversary of completion of construction of the wind farm.
The agreement details that proceeds of this bond or credit will fund the removal of the generating unit down to 4 feet below the surface and the restoration of the land. It does not mention the concrete poured nine to 10 feet deep in the ground to support the turbine. The decommissioning is not to extend beyond 365 days following the decommissioning date, the agreement reads.
If the company doesn’t complete decommissioning, the county could pursue that and seek reimbursement from the bond for the costs.
Commissioner Allen, who practices law in California, said he doubted the agreement would survive the first sale of the wind farm. Some companies develop wind farms and then sell them to another utility, commissioners have heard.
Johnson said the worst case scenario is that completion of construction date keeps getting kicked down the road and never set as the wind farm changes ownership.
Commissioners also asked about setbacks in Neosho Ridge and members of the public attending the session asked about the concrete pads that support the wind turbines. Daniel Chapman, who built bridges for the railroad before retiring, asked if there would be drill shafts filled with concrete under the pad to stabilize it. Westhoff didn’t know.
Mel Hass, who also attended the meeting, said the concrete pads support turbines near his former property in Illinois didn’t have the shafts for concrete to stabilize the structures. Chapman and Hass said they’ve seen wind turbines sway before.
Westhoff said the setbacks, the distance from property lines or homes to the turbine, were 1,640 feet from non-participating homes and 1,025 feet from non-participating landowners’ property lines. Initially, Apex wanted the distances from non-participating property lines to be 1,000 feet, but many found that unacceptable. Westhoff said the final figure of 1,025 feet was disappointing.
Westhoff said the money coming to the county from Apex is nice, but he cautioned commissioners to tread carefully. If he knew in 2016 what he knows now, he said he would have fought harder to keep wind development out of the county.
“Whatever you guys decide is going to be your legacy,” Westhoff said.
Addis said commissioners just want to gather information.
“We don’t want to be anti, we don’t want to be pro. We just want to gather information and be very, very open with what we’re doing and how we’re doing it,” Addis said.
Labette County commissioners asked Johnson if a moratorium would be possible in Labette County. Johnson said it would be.
He said home rule authority would give commissioners options. A moratorium is possible to allow for a time of study for an appointed committee, but commissioners may have to set up limited county zoning that restricts wind farm development related to setbacks from structures or structure height.
A planning and zoning commission would be needed if limited zoning was enacted, he said.
Commissioners have been reluctant to initiate countywide zoning. Addis said that could open the door to other zoning issues.
Allen said despite his reluctance to initiate zoning, that may be an option for Labette County.
“I think we have to for this limited purpose or we’re not going to have any bullets in the fight,” Allen said.
“I think we should seriously think about doing that and setting up a period of time where everything’s put on hold, call it a moratorium or what have you, so we can establish some regulations so that everybody’s treated fairly. I don’t want to put the wind folks out of business, but at the same time I don’t think that they should have total control over what happens in our county.
“I think we need to balance the people that are involved versus the people that aren’t involved and do something that’s fair for everybody. It’s not going to be perfect. … But if we don’t do anything we’re going to be in the same boat as Neosho County. We won’t have any way to do anything except get another 25-foot setback, right? You’d have no leverage,” Allen said.
He suggested a moratorium would not last longer than 12 months, which would be enough time to appoint a group and have them study the issues and impact on the county’s infrastructure from wind development. He said the goal is not to put wind developers out of business, but to study the complex issues related to wind farms.
“It’s going to give our citizens input so that we know, No. 1, what they want. And that’s sort of our duty as representatives of our constituents. And it would also give us some leverage so if they do decide to build in Labette County that we have some ability to steer that project so that it’s not disruptive like it has been in Neosho County,” Allen said.
He said more government is never better, but narrowly tailored zoning would be a necessity in this case so that landowners have protections and wind developers get a fair shake.
In other matters, the commission:
— Agreed to ask an engineer to study 22000 and Irving Road, which is the intersection of the growing Pleasant Hill Community Church. Church representative Jeff Sexton asked for stop signs for traffic passing the church. Commissioners said they would wait to hear from the engineer before making a decision.
— Met in closed session for 10 minutes for an attorney-client discussion with County Counselor Brian Johnson. No action followed.