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Too close for comfort?

By Staff | Apr 23, 2017

Two weeks after the Faribault County Courthouse flooded with advocates for stricter oversight of wind energy projects in rural communities, Loria Rebuffoni, of the county’s Planning and Zoning department, returned with an answer.

Sort of.

Summoned Tuesday to a work session, an unofficial extension of talks from the standing-room-only meeting of April 4, she offered the county’s Board of Commissioners a state-level guideline to consider when weighing the possibility of granting the so-called Coalition for Rural Property Rights its wish.

And it centered on doing what is “reasonable.”

“The state will allow a county to preside over this (wind energy ordinance),” Rebuffoni said, “as long as it’s reasonable.”

The real question, she went on to note, is what qualifies as “reasonable.” And as was conveyed at the County Board’s last meeting, when an overflowing room full of residents from Pilot Grove Township and beyond struck different tones than that of a project developer for a wind turbine company, the definition of “reasonable” is up for debate.

What that group of concerned rural residents, the Coalition, wants the county to do, however, could prove too drastic for the state’s liking.

“We do 1,000-foot setbacks and a decibel measurement for wind turbines,” Rebuffoni said. “With greater setbacks, a 3,000-foot setback, my concern is this might be seen as a moratorium.”

In other words, the Coalition’s request to have Faribault County increase setbacks of turbines on non-participating residences, perhaps even to the degree of stricter ordinances like the one found in Goodhue County, could be too tight of a restriction.

Rebuffoni would not say that was definitely the case, but she did caution the commissioners to take their time in evaluating the Coalition’s thoughts.

“Goodhue did two years of research,” she said. “And you have to think about other townships. I’m still waiting to get more info, so it’s hard to get the full picture right now.”

The County Board fully agreed, and more than 20 visitors at the work session, many of whom had made an appearance at the board’s April 4 meeting, watched the consensus unfold with peace.

But a decision to hold off on any changes to the county’s renewable energy ordinance, which includes the wind turbine guidelines, did not come without a few takes from both sides of the argument.

Commissioner Greg Young, who acknowledged he represents the district many of Tuesday’s visitors call home, opened discussions by inquiring about the possibility of a township Pilot Grove, in this case enacting its own ordinance to prevent unwanted wind energy projects from impeding on rural land.

But county attorney Troy Timmerman said that if Faribault County were to essentially “zone out” one township in its policing of other areas with its energy ordinance, it may very well open itself up to a lawsuit.

Commissioner Tom Loveall nodded in agreement.

“Maybe you have a court case because you kind of just jerked this thing around to stop it (a wind turbine project),” he said.

Commissioner Tom Warmka fell on the same side of the fence, taking to Rebuffoni’s suggestion that the county should take more time on the matter, not encourage a single township to enact its own rules. But he also took it a step further, suggesting that any kind of substantial increase in ordinance restrictions, as requested by the Coalition, would not earn his approval.

“There are 19 other townships in the county that perhaps want to take a swing at it,” Warmka said of wind energy. “Now if it’s so unanimous that you don’t want a turbine, nobody’s going to put one on your farm if you don’t want it, but to restrict all the other townships because of that is egregious.”

Warmka credited the Coalition’s guests at the meeting with approaching the issue in a respectful manner and said he “can be outvoted” but will not support an ordinance in the mold of Goodhue County’s standards.

It was an opinion shared by at least one man in the audience, Barber Township’s Ray Rauenhorst.

Called upon by commissioner Tom Loveall to join the discussion, Rauenhorst called rural wind turbine projects “a golden opportunity,” especially for his own farmland, noting that things like Interstate 90 and electrical power lines have already “affected” his property in the same way that concerned Coalition advocates suggest turbines would impede on their property.

Others, of course, had a differing view.

Dan Moore, for example, was on hand after speaking at the board’s April 4 meeting and hinted outside of Tuesday’s work session that local turbines, including Blue Earth’s Big Blue Windfarm that he himself helped develop, are receiving formal noise complaints.

Excessive noise was one of several factors brought forward by the Coalition earlier in the month in the organization’s plea for increased turbine setbacks.

And yet, still, the question comes back to what is reasonable what the county could enact and enforce without completely halting an entire industry’s growth for the sake of a township’s comfort. Or, in another sense, what the county could enact and enforce without sacrificing constituents’ comfort for the sake of additional profit.

Requesting that Rebuffoni continue to research the issue, the commissioners pledged to reopen talks at a later date.

Until then, the varying opinions on turbines’ place in one part of Southern Minnesota will twist in the wind.