OSWEGO — An Oklahoma woman who was raised in Labette County visited with Labette County commissioners briefly on Monday to discuss her thoughts on the proposed wind energy development in the western half of the county.

Yulondia Wood asked to speak about the issue even though she lives in Craig County. Her parents, Wayne and Carmaletta Bozman, still live in Labette County.

Commission Chairman Lonie Addis told her his intention is to have a special meeting to allow the public an opportunity to express their views about the issue again, perhaps in Angola. He said Commissioners Brian Kinzie and Cole Proehl are still studying the issue and have not firmly committed for or against the wind energy development.

RWE is exploring a wind energy development that would have 50 to 75 turbines generating between 200 and 250 megawatts of power. The turbines could be 500 feet tall at the tip of the blade, according to RWE, although that height and the number of turbines are in question. RWE is collecting wind and weather information and will use this data to help determine turbine location, height and the number of turbines, an RWE representative has said.

A 2020 filing with the Southwest Power Pool, which will receive electricity generated by the Labette County wind farm, if it’s developed, shows the turbine project has a proposed in-service date of Aug. 1, 2023, with a commercial operation date of Dec. 15, 2023. The project would generate 251 megawatts of power. If the turbines generate 2.2 megawatts each, this would mean RWE would install 114 turbines in the footprint of the wind farm. So far, the proposed footprint runs south of 19000 Road, north of 8000 Road, west of Meade Road and east of Douglas Road. The power would travel to the grid via the Neosho-Delaware 356 kilovolt line, according to RWE’s filing on the power pool’s generator interconnection queue.

Brandon Hernandez, an RWE representative, has told commissioners and the Labette County public that construction would not begin until 2023 if the project moved forward.

Wood told commissioners Monday that a petition has collected more than 500 signatures of people against the wind development. She said that this is an emotional issue that impacts the county for years to come. It impacts current residents’ children and grandchildren. 

Addis said he understood. He hopes the commission will come to a decision at some point in the near future on whether to pursue the development and then the commission would have to work out details of a road use agreement with RWE. Addis has said plainly that he’s against wind development in Labette County.

“I think the reason everybody is worried and concerned is because there has been such a gap between the two-year timeline,” Wood said, referring to the time the commission started discussing the issue and the public meeting in Angola in March. She said western Labette County residents just didn’t see the stories in The Sun and other media about the wind project.

She said RWE is also talking to residents in Nowata County, Oklahoma, about leasing land for a wind development there.

She added that she didn’t think the commissioners understood how emotional this issue was to rural Edna residents.

“They are very upset,” she said.

After Wood spoke to commissioners, they met in closed session for 15 minutes to discuss attorney-client privileged information, which Kinzie had requested earlier in the meeting.

Wood told The Sun she hopes to find out from commissioners how a wind development would benefit the county. She said many people have smaller properties, 20 acres or so, and their neighbors are leasing land to the wind development. Wind developments impact property values, she said, and she worries about the health and other impacts the turbines would have on the residents who have no choice but to continue to live in the footprint of the development.

“This is a lifestyle out there. This is a farming and ranching community,” she said. Would the wind development generate enough money for the county to offset the damage that comes with building the large turbines? she asked. Would $1 million a year cover that, or $1.5 million?

Later in the meeting, commissioners discussed wind development again when Addis asked how the commission wanted to proceed to contact RWE. He didn’t want only one commissioner to contact RWE. 

Proehl said even if RWE contacts him, there is little he could do other than bring information back to the commission because he cannot act unilaterally on the issue.

Kinzie asked if the commission should wait for RWE to contact them.

“I don’t like to wait,” Proehl said.

Kinzie said while commissioners wait for the contact, residents have more time to worry about the matter. Proehl offered to contact RWE. Kinzie said he contacted them after a recent commission discussion and asked them to come here to conduct a meeting with the public to provide answers and RWE seemed on board with that. He hasn’t heard back, though.

Proehl said he would like to see a standard road agreement from RWE to see “if we are in the ballpark.” From that agreement, commissioners could discuss what they would like to add or subtract from the agreement.

Kinzie said Public Works Director Sandy Krider, who investigated road use agreements from other counties with wind projects when she sat on an advisory committee researching wind development, has picked out an agreement she liked.

Proehl said that’s ahead of what he’s thinking. He wants to know the number of turbines, the megawatts of them and what RWE has paid other counties for the use of their roads. He wants to know what RWE has paid to counties and schools so he can decide if he wants to pursue a road agreement and the project.

“I’m not going to wait too much longer,” Proehl said, adding that the public is asking a lot of questions for which commissioners need to find answers and he doesn’t want to wait and see what RWE offers.

“Let’s go and see,” Proehl said.

Kinzie then asked about the 10-year tax abatements for wind developments and what that entails. Who would assess the turbines after the 10 years? Would each tower be appraised individually or would the development be assessed as a whole. 

County Counselor Brian Johnson said the state would probably assess turbines and that wind companies would probably argue for the lowest common denominator for assessment.

Kinzie said he would like to know what a turbine is assessed at so he would have an idea of what to ask for in lieu of taxes if the commission votes to go forward with the development. Wind developers in Kansas many times negotiate a payment in lieu of taxes with counties to make up for not being able to assess property taxes for the turbines. 

Johnson said a lawsuit over taxation heard by the Kansas Supreme Court last week may give some insight into the matter. River Rock has argued that some oil or gas wells in Labette, Allen and Neosho counties don’t have value because they don’t produce much and they have old equipment that has little value. The company wants the wells assessed at zero, but the counties argue that the equipment is operating and the company is paying on leases on these wells and wanted a minimum value set of $500 on them. Each step of the way, River Rock could have produced documents to support their contention the wells have no value but it refused. 

Johnson said in Neosho County, the agreement with Apex Clean Energy, which is operating the Neosho Ridge Wind project, shows the 10-year period after which the turbines are taxable will not start until the project closes. If one windmill is still under construction after 10 years, the project has not closed. Apex doesn’t have to post a bond to pay for decommissioning the turbines until the project closes. Where will the money for decommissioning come if Apex does not post the bond?

“It would be very, very stupid for RWE to sell or assign their rights to all these towers right as they are about to expire unless they see a new source of revenue to keep them,” Johnson said.

Once a developer gets all the financial benefit from a project, secondary or tertiary companies come in to see what money they could squeeze from buying the development, or pieces of the development. This is high risk in the oil and gas business, so many of these companies go out of business, Johnson said.

He urged commissioners to think about the future when considering any contract with RWE. Think about when the contract starts and ends and the various phases of the project. 

“The last thing you want is to say, ‘OK, when phase two ends, you have to put down a bond per windmill or for the total amount of X,’” Johnson said. What happens if RWE is out of the picture by that time? You can include language in the contract that makes the details binding on future owners, he said. These clauses can be a challenge to enforce, especially when the county may not be included in discussions about the sale of the development. When the county finally hears about the new owner, that company may think they purchased the property free and clear of such restrictions.

Johnson said RWE may not be willing to share a standard road use agreement. RWE may ask the county what it wants to offer.

“Whoever goes first, that’s a tough position,” Johnson said.

Proehl said commissioners could talk about what ifs and negative impacts all they want, “until we figure out what the concrete positives are, or can be like … and those are things that we can put down in stone, in writing. So I don’t want to make the first offer and I’m not going to.”

He added that he didn’t think commissioners would have to force RWE to provide information.

“This is going to be a horse trading deal. And it’s going to take a long time, and it should because if it takes a long time then you can say to the public ‘we’ve exhausted all efforts to show the best benefit to the county, and then we’ll put it up and vote,’” Johnson said.

Addis said he didn’t want to have a long discussion on the wind project without letting the public know about it by having the matter on the agenda. Proehl and Kinzie said if they have questions they want to be able to discuss them in the open.

“Sometimes we just have to hash things out,” Proehl said.

Commissioners decided to allow Johnson to contact RWE about the project timeline and other matters, such as a proposed road use agreement or when RWE would be ready to visit with the commission.

Proehl wanted the process to move forward rather than arguing over details every week. He acknowledged the project was controversial and emotional for citizens.

“We owe it to the citizens of Labette County, to the citizens of Edna, that we start getting a resolution, whether it’s yes or no, but we need to start this process so we just don’t let everybody fight and drag on and fester and argue,” Proehl said. “We’re just people. We’re divided on too many issues already.”

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