7/21/09: Looking Closer: Why did the PSC delay a public hearing for a proposed wind farm project? And what does the District 2 Court of Appeals Ruling really mean for local ordinances?
Hearing on Wind Farm Delayed
By Lyn Jerde
20 July 2009
A public hearing on a wind energy project proposed for northeast Columbia County that had been scheduled for last week has been delayed to late October or early November, to give the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin more time to study the project’s potential environmental effects.
The delay means that the proposed We Energies wind farm in the towns of Scott and Randolph – including up to 90 wind turbines, capable of generating up to 207 megawatts of electrical power – won’t come to the PSC for final approval any sooner than January 2010.
The project, called Glacier Hills Wind Park, includes a proposal to locate up to 65 turbines in the town of Randolph and 35 in the town of Scott. About 250 parcels of land would be leased from about 45 different owners.
PSC spokeswoman Teresa Smith said the commission requested the delay, and later requested an in-depth environmental impact study, after concerns were raised about a PSC environmental assessment released in May that concluded the project posed “no significant impact.”
According to an addition to the environmental assessment, added in June, some of the other issues that require further exploration include:
- Noise created by the wind turbines and its possible health effects.
- The effects of the turbines on flying wildlife, including bats and various species of birds.
- The patterns of land use and population in the area, including small pockets of residential development in the 17,300 acres encompassed by the project.
- The effect of “shadow flicker” – a strobe-like flashing of light experienced by some who live near wind turbines.
- The aesthetic effects of numerous turbine towers, which can be several hundred feet tall.
“Based on experience with recently constructed wind farms,” the addendum to the environmental assessment said, “there is a wide range in how non-participating landowners react to nearby new turbines. To some the turbines are an inconsequential change on the landscape; others believe that the turbines greatly degrade their lives. Many have feelings that range somewhere in between.”
Smith said an environmental impact statement can address concerns in more depth than an environmental assessment can give.
Brian Manthey, spokesman for We Energies, said the PSC first asked to delay a decision on Glacier Hills Wind Park for 180 days. Later, the PSC decided that the environmental impact statement was among the pieces of additional information it needed to make the decision.
Manthey said the delay would slow the company’s construction plans. Originally, We Energies had hoped to start building the wind farm before the end of the year or in early 2010, with 2012 as the first full year of operation. Now, he said, if the PSC approves the project, construction can start no sooner than next spring.
“That makes things a little tighter,” Manthey said. “But it makes for a more thorough process.”
A public hearing was supposed to have been held last Monday at the Randolph Town Hall in Friesland.
Town Board Chairman David Hughes of rural Cambria said the PSC posted several announcements in and around the community that the hearing had been delayed.
As a farmer, Hughes said, he isn’t happy about the rescheduling.
“I said way back a year ago that I didn’t want this hearing in the spring when farmers are planting or in the fall when farmers are harvesting,” he said.
Interest in the Glacier Hills proposal remains high, Hughes said. Starting early this spring, signs in opposition to Glacier Hills Wind Park, and to possible other wind turbines not affiliated with We Energies, began cropping up in the area.
Hughes said he fielded more than 100 phone calls about the issue. What he typically tells callers, he said, is that the PSC, and not the town board, is the entity to which people should direct their opinions and concerns.
“There is nothing the town can do to encourage or discourage this,” he said.
However, Hughes noted, the town of Randolph has appointed a six-member citizens’ committee – composed of three proponents and three opponents of wind turbines – to make recommendations for a joint development agreement between the town and We Energies, addressing issues such as setback and noise levels. This group’s recommendations would be passed on to the PSC when the hearing is held, Hughes said.
In the public hearing, participants testify under oath before an administrative law judge. The record of the hearing is compiled and submitted to the three-member PSC for consideration in the final decision.
Between now and the hearing, the PSC will begin work on the environmental impact statement.
Timothy Le Monds, the PSC’s director of government relations and public affairs, said the draft environmental impact statement will be issued sometime in the next two weeks, followed by a 45-day period in which anyone may submit comments on the draft.
To comment on the project or to follow its progress, anyone may go to the PSC’s Web site, www.psc.wi.gov, and enter the docket number, 6630-CE-302. People also may write to Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, 610 N. Whitney Way, Box 7854 , Madison, WI 53707-7854, or call (608) 266-5481 or toll-free (888) 816-3831.
State court tosses local wind turbine regulations
A Wisconsin appeals court on Wednesday effectively struck down numerous municipal ordinances that have slowed the development of wind energy, lawyers said.
Local governments cannot pass broad rules dictating how far wind turbines must be from other buildings, how tall they can be or how much noise they can produce, the Waukesha-based District 2 Court of Appeals ruled.
Instead, municipalities must consider each project on a case-by-case basis and only restrict them to protect public health or in a way that does not affect a system's cost or efficiency, the court said.
The decision struck down a Calumet County ordinance that set height, noise and setback requirements for turbines, but lawyers said its impact would be felt statewide.
Curt Pawlisch, a Madison lawyer who lobbies on behalf of wind energy advocates, said the ruling effectively invalidates roughly a dozen different ordinances adopted by counties, towns and other municipalities.
"All the ordinances that tried to adopt standards of general applicability are out the window," he said.
Wind energy advocates say the local rules have stalled numerous projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars, slowing investment in a renewable energy and killing potential jobs. Supporters say they have protected nearby properties from a negative effects such as loud noise.
State lawmakers are considering a bill that would require the Public Service Commission to set uniform rules for the projects statewide and prohibit municipalities from adopting stricter regulations. Right now, the commission only approves the largest projects, those capable of producing more than 100 megawatts of electricity.
The Assembly Committee on Energy and Utilities voted 10-2 last month for the bill, which is backed by business, labor, environmental and farm groups.
Rep. Jim Soletski, D-Green Bay and a bill sponsor, said he hoped it would pass both houses of the Legislature later this year and Wednesday's ruling gives it more momentum. Some lawmakers from areas with restrictive ordinances had opposed the bill but now may have reason to support it, he said.
Uniform rules are still needed statewide because it's unclear how each municipality will apply Wednesday's decision, Pawlisch said.
A group called the Coalition for Wisconsin Environmental Stewardship has formed to oppose a statewide standard. The group says improperly sited wind farms can hurt property values, create too much noise and even send constantly flickering shadows into homes.
Wednesday's ruling involved farmers who wanted to add a few wind turbines to their farm so they could sell power back to a utility to generate income.
When Calumet County learned of the proposal in 2004, it put a moratorium on new wind turbines and then adopted an ordinance restricting them. The farmers filed a lawsuit claiming the county exceeded its authority.
The appeals court agreed, saying state law promotes alternative energy sources such as wind and discourages restrictive local regulations.
"The court got it right," said Elizabeth Rich, a lawyer for the farmers. "There is a strong policy favoring renewable energy sources like wind in Wisconsin and not favoring a crazy quilt of local ordinances trying to regulate wind in different ways in each municipality."
The wind turbines can't be built just yet in Calumet County. The case now goes back to a lower court for additional proceedings.