Commission discusses wind farm possibility

NEWTON – Planning and Zoning Director Karen Rothe updated the Board of Harvey County Commissioners on Tuesday about Next Era Energy’s plans to develop wind energy in the county.

Rothe said the planning commission met June 7 to look over the regulations for wind energy. She also said she was putting together a spreadsheet comparing Harvey’s land-use regulations to those of other counties.

“We have really good regulations,” she said. “We are among the stricter regulations in the area.”

Rothe noted that Brian Stucky of Goessel asked the planning commission to ban wind turbines altogether from the county. No action was taken. She said she also received a lot of requests, mainly from firefighters, to ban turbines from the Sand Hills. Next Era Energy already has expressed that it no longer had an interest in developing wind energy there.

Rothe said Harvey was so dense in population that she didn’t see how Next Era Energy was going to be able to erect 60-80 turbines within the county. She said some farmers already had signed leases with the company.

Commissioner George “Chip” Westfall asked Rothe for the locations of those leases. Rothe said she didn’t have them at this time.

Hague said he understood that the farmers who signed leases would get paid whether the turbines were erected or not.

Rothe confirmed his supposition. She said planning commissioners were concerned about property line setbacks. She said the county’s regulations required the turbines to be 500 feet from a property line plus 50 feet, or the height of the tower plus 50 feet, whichever is greater. Turbines also have to be at least 500 feet from a road. She said the setbacks left some “holes” for towers, but not a lot.

“If we were to up those setbacks, we might as well ban them because it’s not going to leave any space,” Rothe said.

Commission Chairman asked if a landowner could sign a waiver to allow towers to be closer than the setback.

Rothe said one could, but the towers still couldn’t be closer than 500 feet.

Hague asked if Next Era Energy indicated how much revenue the county might receive from the planned wind farms.

Rothe said she hadn’t received a financial report from Next Era Energy. She said the county might need to conduct an economic impact study.

Rothe said several planning commissioners had voiced concerns about erecting wind turbines over areas of the Equus beds that had shallow water tables.

Hague asked what difference the depth made.

“We put bridge pilings down 50 feet and that doesn’t seem to impact the ground water,” he said.

Rothe said she thought that the turbines sometimes leaked oil and she said she wanted to be sure there were no issues.

Hague asked if the same people were concerned about railroads going over shallow portions of the beds. He said a train could derail, causing contents of tanker cars to leak into the soil. He asked where one might draw a line. He said he thought a majority of residents would like to see wind farms in the county. He said the people who attended meetings seemed to be against them, “like it always is.”

Westfall said some of the opposition was related to NIMBY (not in my backyard) philosophy.

Hague said residents wanted commissioners to hold the line on taxes. He said wind energy was a perfect opportunity to generate revenue for the county, yet people are opposed to it.

“It just doesn’t make any sense to me,” he said.

Schroeder asked if the county itself would benefit from wind energy.

Rothe said it would, but she didn’t know what the financial impact would be. She said that a Next Era Energy representative indicated that it looked for ways to benefit local schools.

Commissioners learned that a financial incentive the city and county granted Aerospace Technologies Corporation for a land lease at Newton City-County Airport could cause unintended difficulties with the Federal Aviation Administration. Aviation Director Brian Palmer said the FAA viewed the terms of the lease, 8 cents per acre, as an incentive since it was below the market value of 15 cents. He said he was “browbeat” by the FAA. He also said he argued with the FAA a little bit, but the FAA didn’t see the incentive as an appropriate diversion of revenue from the airport.

Palmer said he knew the airport would receive a single-source audit after the completion of a taxiway project. He said the city and county needed to assure the FAA that there was no diversion of revenue from the airport. He requested that the city and county each transfer $19,893.21 from their general funds to the airport fund to cover the cost of the incentive.

Westfall asked what the consequences might be if the city or county declined.

Palmer said the most extreme action would be for the FAA to cut out all federal funding from the airport. He said the FAA could review its entitlement funding going back 20 years. He said he suspected the airport would have to pay a penalty of some kind if the airport fund wasn’t reimbursed. He said future funding also could be affected. He noted that the airport had an annual economic impact of $152 million.

Commissioners approved its half of the total annual cost of the incentive from the general fund to the airport fund, which is maintained by the city. Subsequent annual payments will have to included in future budgets until the incentive expires in 2028.

Carl Svaty, with MKEC Engineering, presented his findings of the county’s biennial bridge inspection report. He told commissioners he had nothing earthshaking to report and that two-thirds of the bridges were in good to excellent condition. Of the county’s 245 bridges, 92 had a rating below 80, and just 13 percent (35) had a rating less than 50. He showed commissioners pictures of some bridges that needed some work, but he said he had nothing to report about which commissioners should be concerned.

Health Department Director Lynnette Redington told commissioners that Harvey joined Butler, Marion and Reno counties as areas of high community transmission of COVID-19. She said the number cases had crept up in the past couple of weeks. As of Monday, Harvey had 20 active cases with one hospitalization.

The meeting started nearly 30 minutes late because of technical difficulties. Public information officer Kyle McCaskey said the Zoom platform was having technical issues nationwide. An audio recording of the meeting can be accessed on the county’s website.

In other business, commissioners:

* Appointed Tim Buller, Carol Dilts-Jones and Beth Shelton to the Parks Advisory Board and reappointed Jerry McKinney to another term.

* Approved paying bills totaling $211,639.11 for the week ending June 10 and $350,242.04 for the week ending June 17.

* Approved the health department’s application for a grant of up to $125,000.

* Approved amending the bylaws for the Harvey County Department on Aging Advisory Council. The council recently reviewed the bylaws and recommended the changes.

* Approved the purchase of a Caterpillar backhoe for $158,400, minus a $35,000 trade-in, for the road and bridge department.

* Went into executive session of 20 minutes to discuss potential litigation. Commissioners then went into another closed session to discuss the potential acquisition of property.

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