Winfield Local officials who worked for years to get a wind farm in a southeast Kansas county are angry they weren't consulted before Gov. Sam Brownback entered into an agreement with wind-energy companies to expand the area of the Flint Hills where new wind turbines are off-limits.
Cowley County commissioners had been working with a company, BP Wind Energy, to build a wind farm in the northeast corner of the county. That area now falls within the Tallgrass Heartland, an 11,000-square-mile chunk of Kansas now protected from wind farm growth, the Wichita Eagle reported Sunday.
The new area is more than twice the size of the off-limits area that former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius established in 2005. Brownback's deal with wind-energy companies was announced earlier this month.
"I can't believe the governor would do that," said Goff Searl, a commissioner in Chautauqua County, which sits next to Crowley County and is in the protected area. "That's economic development he just said no to."
Although his county didn't have plans for a wind farm, Searl said it wasn't right for the government to take away its right to do so.
More than 400,000 acres of tallgrass prairie once covered North America, but only about 4 percent of that is left, most of it in the Flint Hills of Kansas. Brownback envisions economic development in the area, but in the form of tourism, not energy generation.
Some county officials, lawmakers and landowners are irate. Not only were they not included in discussions about expanding the protected area, they weren't even told about it. Property rights and the potential loss of economic development opportunities are among the biggest issues for them.
Three state legislators who live in the county — two Republicans and one Democrat — sent a joint letter of protest to Brownback. Cowley County Commission Chairman Gary Wilson sent two emails to President Barack Obama, but Wilson doesn't think that will do any good.
Asked why Brownback didn't consult with local landowners and county officials, spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag said in an email that county commissioners weren't contacted. She didn't respond to a request for a further explanation.
Existing wind farms and proposed ones that have an agreement to sell power to a utility are allowed to continue operating in the area, but won't be able to expand.
Cowley County commissioners said BP Wind Energy needed only to obtain a power purchase agreement with a utility before it could start building. But company officials said they were already considering pulling out of the project for other reasons, before Brownback announced his plan.
"I think there were probably already a few nails in that coffin," said Karl Pierce, BP's business development director who oversaw the Cowley County project.
He said BP had been trying to get a power-purchase agreement since 2006, but wasn't close to getting one. Also, two of the larger leases on the 30,000-acre project expired in December and January.
"We were trying to decide what to do about the leases," Pierce said. "We were in that decision mode, anyway. Then this (expanded restricted area) came up and helped us make our decision."
In addition to Cowley County, officials in Morris, Marion, Elk, Butler and Chautauqua counties also said they weren't consulted about Brownback's deal. Nor were the three members of the county's legislative delegation, who said they heard about the plan after the fact.
That prompted Sen. Steve Abrams, R-Arkansas City, and Reps. Kasha Kelley, R-Arkansas City, and Ed Trimmer, D-Winfield, to send a letter to the governor arguing that excluding county officials "appears to fly in the face of the concept of open and transparent government."