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Company shares plans for nearby wind farm

October 11, 2018

In this file photo, turbines collect wind energy near Odell.

Officials from a company hoping to build around 50 wind turbines in the area held two public events this week to address concerns from area landowners.

NextEra Energy Resources is planning to build the turbines in northern Gage and southern Lancaster counties. Known as the Blue Prairie Wind Project, the turbines could be operational in as little as two years.

NextEra isn’t the first company to propose building wind turbines in the area. It bought the project from Volkswind, a company that planned to build a wind farm four years ago.

Volkswind failed to follow through on the project after it prompted both Gage and Lancaster county officials to reevaluate their zoning regulations for wind turbines.

Gage County updated its regulations related to wind farms the following March, setting decibel limits of 60 for participating property owners and 45 during the day and 40 at night for nonparticipating residences.

A nonparticipating property is one that does not have an agreement with the wind system operator.

Lancaster County sets its decibel limits at a lower level and for the current plan to become a reality, NextEra has requested that the Lancaster County Planning and Zoning Board reevaluate its wind energy regulations.

“The current regulations are prohibitive for wind energy development in Lancaster County, there’s no question,” said Dave Kuhn, project manager for the Blue Prairie Wind Project. “That’s part of the reason why we filed our text amendment that’s really seeking to strike that balance between nonparticipating landowner concerns and the flexibility required for someone who wants to participate in a wind project and become a business partner with us.”

In 2015, Lancaster County commissioners approved regulations establishing noise limits of 40 decibels in the day and 37 at night for wind turbines.

NextEra hopes to increase the levels to 50 decibels at any time for participating landowners, while sound levels would remain the same for nonparticipating properties. The company is also requesting setback changes for nonparticipating lots from the current two times to 1.1 times the turbine height measured to the property line, among other changes.

A public hearing is expected to be held in Lancaster County on Wednesday, Nov. 28 at 1 p.m.

Kuhn said the project won’t be scrapped regardless of what Lancaster County officials decide. He said it’s too soon to speculate how many towers would be in each county, but there is a possibility of more being built south of the county line if current Lancaster County regulations remain.

“I’m fairly confident we’re going to continue to work with Lancaster County to try and find something,” Kuhn said. “Of course Gage County to the south, their regulations today we can work with and there’s a good resource there as well. The project definitely does not die if this doesn’t go through.”

Officials hope the project would benefit the area, but some residents are worried wind turbines could be a danger, pose health issues and just be an eyesore.

Darin Schwaninger, who lives near Hallam, thought the issue was over when Volkswind gave up on the project.

“I thought it was all done,” he said. “We’ve gone through this before. I thought those setbacks had sufficiently convinced them that they shouldn’t do it. There’s noise issues, health issues, and who wants them in your neighborhood?”

Yvonne Mihulka, who lives in Gage County southwest of Cortland, spoke at Gage County hearings three years ago to voice opposition to turbines, and plans to continue the fight as a nonparticipating landowner who has nothing to gain from the project.

“I’ve spent lots of money on my property to build a bed and breakfast and we don’t want to have to look at towers,” she said. “Visually, I don’t want to look out my second floor deck and look at a bunch of metal towers and red blinking lights. I want to look out at the countryside. That’s why we moved here was to be in the country, not to be surrounded by a wind farm.”

More turbines in Gage County would be welcome news to Gage County Planning and Zoning Chairman Dennis Rosene, who thinks the project would be good for the area and said regulations were set to allow wind turbines an acceptable distance from homes.

“We had very good regulations before we even started,” he said. “Lancaster caught up to Gage County and, in my opinion, probably set the levels at the ‘go away’ level and I think that’s unfortunate.

“It’d be nice to pay off a $28 million bill, too,” he added, hinting that the added tax revenue from the project could help pay down the Beatrice 6 judgment. The ruling in the wrongful conviction case recently pushed the County Board of Supervisors to raise taxes to the maximum allowable level, a decision that could be in effect for nearly a decade.

According to information from NextEra, the project consists of turbines up to 90 meters tall.

NextEra anticipates the $141 million project would create around 200 jobs during construction and generate more than $25 million in property taxes over a 30 year period for the two counties.

Kuhn indicated NextEra will likely apply sometime late next year for the special use permit to build turbines in Gage County with hopes of construction the following year.

Once NextEra applies for a permit there will be public hearings at both Planning and Zoning and County Board meetings before final approval is given.

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