Constructed a decade ago by local landowners, the Hardin Hilltop Wind Farm was the first wind farm in Greene County. At the end of 2016, the county was home to 32 wind turbines. By this time next year, there will be 158. HERALD FILE PHOTO

County gives official OK to 85 wind turbines

MidAmerican project not without its critics

By ANDREW MCGINN
a.mcginn@beeherald.com

Jay Thompson always wanted to settle down on an acreage, and 15 years ago he bought four acres north of Dana for just that day.

He now doubts he’ll ever build a new house on his land, which has been engulfed by towering wind turbines.

“I worked hard for that place,” the 58-year-old Grand Junction resident told the Greene County Board of Adjustment Dec. 21 during a hearing on whether the board should issue the permit needed for MidAmerican Energy to construct 85 more wind turbines in Greene County.

After a meeting lasting more than two and a half hours at the Greene County courthouse, the five-person board unanimously gave MidAmerican authorization to proceed with a second phase of its Beaver Creek wind project, albeit with caveats.

Construction will begin in the spring in Dawson, Hardin, Junction and Paton twps.

The project’s first phase this year saw the construction of 85 turbines split about evenly between Greene and Boone counties — 41 in Greene County and 44 in Boone County.

That means within two years, MidAmerican will have planted 126 new turbines in Greene County alone as part of its Wind XI project, a $3.6 billion undertaking the company touts as the largest economic development project in Iowa’s history.

There’s little question the turbines will generate much more than just electricity — county taxpayers stand to profit handsomely from their presence in northeastern Greene County.

Over the 40-year life of the turbines, the county is expected to reap $105 million in property taxes from MidAmerican.

An additional $70 million will go to landowners for the mere privilege of hosting a turbine on MidAmerican’s behalf.

But Thompson kept coming back to a question to which he could get no suitable answer.

“What about a small guy like me?” he asked repeatedly.

Many landowners who’ve consented to turbines don’t live on their own land, said Alexis Hooper, who lives east of Grand Junction on land that’s been in her family for more than 100 years.

Thompson was visibly frustrated that the county is seemingly more concerned with MidAmerican’s impact on roads and farm field drainage tiles than people.

“Tiles are fixable. Roads are fixable,” Thompson said. “But what about human life?”

He said that on his four-acre property north of Dana, “every whoosh of the blade” is audible.

“You have to have a special person who wants to live next to them,” he said, referring to a conversation with a real estate agent about his property values.

Another person at the hearing spoke of a young couple in the metro area who had hoped to relocate to an acreage in Greene County. That, he said, won’t happen now.

Left-of-center Churdan farmer George Naylor said that with so few people living now in the country, it appears the land is destined to become a “sacrifice zone” for wind energy and hog waste.

Just how disruptive wind turbines are seems to be a matter of individual tolerance.

Bill Sutton, who has lived near wind turbines for more than a decade, said he has a windbreak on his property and that the noise from the turbines is no louder than the sound of the wind blowing through the windbreak.

Another landowner voiced displeasure that his land was actually passed over for a turbine.

“I’ve got earplugs if it gets too bad,” he remarked.

Concerned residents say county zoning ordinances pertaining to wind turbines are far too liberal.

Greene County requires turbines to be set back only 1,000 feet from a residence.

That’s even too close for MidAmerican, whose representatives said company policy is to set turbines back at least 1,200 feet from a participating residence and 1,500 feet from all other homes.

“Why are we doing just the minimum of what Iowa says we have to do?” Alexis Hooper asked. “Why can’t we do better?”

Only the county board of supervisors can enact tougher zoning ordinances, but the board of adjustment clearly didn’t want concerned residents last week to walk away empty handed from the hearing.

Assistant County Attorney Thomas Laehn was summoned to help the board draft language that would hold MidAmerican to setbacks of 1,200 feet without consent, and to establish parameters for noise and the amount of flicker caused by each turbine.

MidAmerican representatives preferred the wording to say “should.”

“There’s a huge legal difference between should or shall,” Laehn said at one point. “My advice to the board is to use the word shall.”

The permit granted by the board of adjustment was OK’d pending further review from both sides.

In it, the county will require that the noise from MidAmerican’s turbines under normal weather and operating conditions shall not exceed 50 decibels at the center point of a residence.

It also holds MidAmerican to no more than 30 hours of shadow/flicker per year.

“Trying not to step into a trap here,” Adam Jablonski, a MidAmerican project manager, said aloud as company representatives tried negotiating without their lawyers present.

Des Moines-based MidAmerican has customers in Iowa, Illinois, South Dakota and Nebraska.

The company delved into renewable energy in 2004. At that time, according to the company, 70 percent of its generation capacity came from coal. None came from wind.

By the end of 2016, wind was generating 48 percent of the company’s power, sending coal usage down to 31 percent.

MidAmerican won’t know until spring whether it properly repaired all drainage tiles damaged locally during the first phase of the Beaver Creek wind project.

The company vowed to pay for any crop loss that may occur as a result of standing water in fields even 10 to 20 years from now.

“We will always go and fix it right away,” Jablonski said.

The company also repaired pavement damaged during the first phase, although the work isn’t permanent. Road surfaces are safe but not smooth, company representatives reported.

Representatives also reported reimbursing the county for extensive road damage.

Roads were damaged because MidAmerican’s contractor didn’t take out the appropriate permit for oversized vehicles, said construction manager Scott Cobb. The axel weight of the cranes was too high for the local roads.

“We learned our lesson,” Cobb said. “MidAmerican doesn’t want to be in the road repair business.”

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