On Wednesday, the Douglas County Commission could end a two-and-a-half year internal planning effort when it considers regulations for wind power turbine towers and systems.
Commissioners will consider a text amendment to county code that allows and regulates large commercial wind turbines through the county’s conditional use process. The public hearing on the text amendment will be at the 6 p.m. time slot the commission reserves for issues expected to garner public comment.
The proposed text amendment addresses a gap in the county’s regulatory language, which came to light when NextEra Energy of Florida applied for a conditional use permit to install two meteorological towers to measure wind speeds in southern Douglas County. The application caused considerable comment from area residents concerned about the building of towers near their property.
In response, the County Commission has approved a series of moratoriums on wind-generated energy systems since December 2013. The last, which expires July 31, was approved in April. Commissioners also asked for a staff review of wind energy, which was presented at a work session in February 2014.
The text amendment before commissioners on Wednesday is a revised version of one presented in April. Like the first version, the measure establishes a two-tier approach to regulating wind generation towers. Smaller turbines generating 50 kilowatts or less for personal or small commercial on-site use would be considered through the county’s building permit process.
When the amendment was first considered in April, Lawrence-Douglas County Metropolitan Planning staffer Sandra Day said many of the large tower turbine regulations, such as setback and public notification requirements, were borrowed from the county’s conditional use permit for communication tower regulations.
Commissioners tabled the item so that staff could further flesh out language on small turbine use and to have planning staff review whether the county could expand protest petition rights for large commercial applications beyond what is required by state statute. Commissioners also expressed interest in reviewing the county’s revenue potential from large commercial wind towers.
The text amendment’s original language required 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 wind tower was proposed. However, only those living within 1,000 feet of the property would have the right to sign a protest petition challenging its approval, a move that would require all three commissioners to vote in favor of the application.
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,” Commissioner Jim Flory said in April. “This is a different thing than anything we’ve ever dealt with. Communication towers are a piece of cake compared to wind turbines.”
The revised text amendment before commissioners retains the 1-mile notification but doesn’t expand protest rights to those property owners beyond the 1,000-foot radius. However, staff wrote in a report to commissioners that the County Commission has the authority to give protest petition rights to those living in a 1-mile radius. That would create the possibility of two separate protest petitions, both of which could force a supermajority vote, staff wrote.
As for revenue possibilities, staff wrote that commercial wind towers were eligible for lifetime property tax exemptions before 2015. Therefore, counties negotiated payment in lieu of taxes arrangements with their owners. The Kansas Legislature has now changed the law and those towers approved after Jan. 1, 2017, are eligible for only a 10-year tax exemption. Staff wrote it was not yet known what effect the statute change would have on the county’s right to negotiate payment in lieu of taxes agreements with wind turbine owners.
The text amendment establishes the conditional use permit application process for developers, which requires a general concept plan, defined construction phasing, the amount of property to be disturbed or cleared and forbids transfer of the conditional use permit without the County Commission’s approval.
The proposed conditional use permit language addresses the visual, noise, soil erosion, water quality, cultural heritage and infrastructure impacts of proposed towers.
The conditional use permit would stipulate that towers be set back from adjacent property lines a distance equal to 110 percent of the tower's height plus the length of blades and that no residential structures can be closer to towers than 1,500 feet.
The conditional use permit would also cover the decommissioning and removal of towers. Applicants would be required to maintain a surety bond with the county as payee to ensure towers would be removed.
In other business, commissioners will:
• Consider a resolution regulating the placement of political signs in county easements, forbidding placing signs 300 feet from an intersection or 20 feet from a road.
• Consider an employee longevity program that will reward employees with five or more years of service and add Veterans Day to the county’s holiday list.
The Douglas County Commission meets at 4 p.m. Wednesday at the Douglas County Courthouse, 1100 Massachusetts St. To see the commission’s entire agenda, visit douglascountyks.org.