The Douglas County Commission tabled consideration of a text amendment regulating wind generation towers Wednesday while instructing planning staff to address questions regarding advanced public notification before their approval and revenue the county might generate from them.
The action came after a public hearing on the issue that drew only one speaker.
“We’re going to want a little more time to ponder and consider this,” County Commission Chairman Jim Flory said. “It’s a significant issue in my mind. There was a lot of public interest when this was on our doorstep and we had to react. I think we need to schedule a 6 p.m. public hearing to find out the public’s interest.”
County commissioners placed a moratorium on wind-generated energy systems in December 2013 and have extended the moratorium on several occasions before directing county staff to develop regulations last year. The initial moratorium was in response to the county’s lack of regulatory language concerning wind towers revealed when NextEra Energy of Florida applied for a conditional use permit to install two meteorological towers meant to measure wind speeds in southwestern Douglas County.
The text amendment Lawrence-Douglas County Metropolitan Planning staff member Sandra Day presented Wednesday, which came to the County Commission with Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission’s unanimous recommendation for approval, would establish a two-tier approach to regulating wind generation towers. The proposed text amendment would regulate wind towers meant for personal and small commercial use, which are defined as towers with a generating capacity of 50 kilowatts or less for consumption on site, through the county’s building permit process. Its language would address setbacks, height, appearance and other effects on neighboring properties.
Day said that wording wasn’t included because staff was still studying the appropriate section of the county’s building codes to insert the small wind tower regulations.
Large commercial applications, such as the NextEra Energy proposal, will continue to be considered through the county’s conditional use permit process. Day said some of its features, such as setback and public notification requirements, were borrowed from the county’s CUP communication tower regulations.
The text amendment would require that public hearing notifications be mailed to all property owners in the county’s unincorporated areas within a 1-mile radius of a property on which a proposed wind tower were to be erected. Day said, however, only those living within 1,000 feet of the property would have the right to sign a protest petition challenging its approval.
That was one of the provisions commissioners wanted addressed, if the county had the ability to do so through home rule.
“Notice without some remedy is kind of shallow,” Flory said. “This is a different thing than anything we’ve ever dealt with. Communication towers are a piece of cake compared to wind turbines.”
The text amendment would establish a minimum setback distance equal to 110 percent of the tower's height plus the length of a vertically extended blade and declare that no residential structures could be closer than 1,500 feet to towers. Day said towers could be quite tall, referring to a graphic shared at a February 2014 work session that indicated the tip of a blade of the largest towers could be 492 feet above ground level. Towers were getting bigger, she said.
To make use of the conditional use permit process possible, the text amendment adds wind towers as a permitted CUP use. It also establishes the application process for developers, which requires a general concept plan, defined construction phasing and the amount of property to be disturbed or cleared, and forbids transfer of the CUP without the County Commission’s approval.
The proposed CUP language addresses the visual, noise, soil erosion, water quality, cultural heritage and infrastructure impacts of proposed towers. Those standards were guidelines, Day said, and could be adjusted for specific sites should the developer demonstrate that was appropriate for a specific site.
Commissioners were also interested in what wind farms could mean financially to the county in the way of property taxes or some kind of arrangement such as the severance tax on oil and gas production.
“If I was ever to vote for one of these monstrosities, which I don’t think I’ll have to, I would want the county to get significant revenue,” Flory said.
Eileen Horn, county sustainability coordinator, said the subject came with some pitfalls as payment-in-lieu of taxes arrangements negotiated during CUP discussions could be viewed as bribes.
Day and Horn did agree to investigate what revenue wind-energy producing Kansas counties were receiving.
The only resident to speak at the public hearing was Wayne Coffman, of rural Baldwin City. NextEra approached him about leasing land for a tower in the past, he said. His concern was assurances towers would be removed should their owners go bankrupt.
The proposed text amendment would require applicants to maintain a surety bond with the county as payee to ensure towers would be removed, Flory said.
“The trick is to have it be sufficient to get the job done,” he said.
Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug said company officials have told him NextEra still plans to explore the potential of wind power in the southern part of the county.
NextEra officials did not respond to the Journal-World’s request for an interview.
The company briefly installed a meteorological tower northeast of Baldwin City without a permit. It was removed in June 2015 with its discovery by county codes officers. Weinaug said the company was informed that action would be considered with any subsequent application.
County commissioners tabled the text amendment with the request planning staff explore the issues for notification and revenue and complete small-use language before a second public hearing. Weinaug said he would attempt to have that public hearing in about 30 days.
In other business, commissioners learned from Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department director Dan Partridge the department would start working on an update of the community health plan and health assessment adopted in 2013. The goal is to adopt the update in 2018, he said. The first step would be the appointment this year of a steering committee with a public and private representative from Baldwin City, Eudora, Lawrence, Lecompton and the county.