Douglas County leaders approve permit for energy company’s meteorological tower; they say it doesn’t guarantee that a wind farm will happen

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

A public commenter voices their concerns about future wind energy development during the Douglas County Commission's Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022 meeting.

No specific wind energy project is on the horizon yet in Douglas County, but leaders on Wednesday approved a permit for something that could help determine whether a wind farm is viable: a meteorological evaluation tower.

At its meeting Wednesday, the Douglas County Commission approved a temporary permit request from Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources to install the 60-meter tower on property in Marion Township, about 17 miles west of Baldwin City, for at least one year, with the possibility of renewal on a yearly basis for up to five years. The Journal-World previously reported that, for more than a year, NextEra has been exploring the feasibility of building a large wind farm in southwest Douglas County.

During the meeting’s public comment period, fifteen county residents expressed concerns about future wind energy development. Most said they live in the rural area of the county NextEra has expressed interest in, and their concerns ranged from how such development would affect the rural landscape and wildlife to whether a wind farm would even be viable in Douglas County.

Some commenters said they thought the tower request was a “foot in the door” toward an inevitable development. Some called for a moratorium on any permits or other actions related to wind energy development until the Lawrence-Douglas County Metropolitan Planning Commission discusses a new draft of wind energy regulations in the coming weeks.

But when commissioners voted later to approve the permit, they said they didn’t feel there was a pressing need for any kind of moratorium, and the permit for the tower doesn’t guarantee that wind energy development will happen in the immediate future. Commissioner Karen Willey said she lives in that part of the county and has been approached by NextEra in the past, but also said she doesn’t see the need for a moratorium of any kind right now.

A representative with NextEra said earlier in the meeting that it would take at least two years to compile enough meaningful data from the tower, and Commissioner Shannon Reid said that meant there was still time to consider the rules for wind farms in the county. She mentioned that the commission had finished a similar process — for solar farm regulations — earlier this year.

“I hear many people’s concerns that this is the first step, that this is ‘what opens the door,'” Reid said. “I appreciate that, and also would clarify that there’s a minimum of two years of data that needs to be gathered, and quite frankly, that data could say that, as many of you have stated, it’s not viable to build a project here.”

Commissioner Patrick Kelly said he thought projects like this one — and any others that come before the commission — should be looked at individually within the scope of the county’s regulations.

“… There’s a process for this,” Kelly said. “It’s important to know what we’re focused on in this part of the process, and for me that’s really important, that we don’t get too far down the line and say ‘We’re protecting against a fear that we don’t know if it’s actually coming or not.'”

In other business, the commission:

• Discussed the first examples of possible maps for new commission districts, which county staff shared earlier this week.

The four maps, prepared by Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew, are a result of voters approving the expansion of the commission from three members to five in early November. The commission is tasked with passing a new district map by Jan. 1, 2023, after which it will send a recommendation to Gov. Laura Kelly about how the elections for the new commissioners should be conducted.

photo by: Douglas County screenshot

The “County” map is one of four options the Douglas County Commission will take a first look at during Wednesday’s commission meeting. The commission will need to approve a new map reflecting an expansion from three to five members before the start of 2023.

Shew previously told the Journal-World that the new districts have to be contiguous and as equal in size as possible. The example maps break the districts up into populations ranging from around 22,500 to roughly 25,000.

Douglas County Administrator Sarah Plinsky told commissioners that she’d stop short of calling the maps “proposed.” Instead, she said they’re more like a small set of options or ideas.

Plinsky said she’s planning for more discussion on the topic at the commission’s meeting on Dec. 7, and that feedback from county leaders and the public will be important. Any of the options could be eliminated — or entirely new ones could be added — based on feedback the county receives, she said.

The county will host a town hall meeting on Thursday so the public can share their thoughts on the new districts. It’s scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Thursday in Flory Meeting Hall on the Douglas County Fairgrounds, 2120 Harper St.


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