NextEra is still looking into viability of a wind farm in Douglas County; local landowners are divided
photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World
Talk of a wind farm located partially in southwest Douglas County, which first began late last year, may take a while to blow over.
A representative with NextEra Energy Resources, a Florida-based energy firm, confirmed to the Journal-World Thursday that the company is still in the initial stages of gauging whether the area is the right place for a wind energy project. NextEra spokesperson Sara Cassidy said that included assessing existing transmission infrastructure, gauging landowners’ and county officials’ interest and conducting environmental surveys.
That’s not much different from the exploration NextEra was pursuing in the area in October; the Journal-World has previously reported details about the so-called Larksong Wind Energy Center project NextEra has tabbed southwestern Douglas County and parts of Franklin County as its preferred location for, including elements of the contracts being shared with landowners.
Nearly a year later, property owners in the path of the proposed project are starting to filter into camps that are open to the project or against it entirely.
Laurie Shuck lives on a 320-acre century farm — a farm that’s been in the family for more than 100 years — in the southwest corner of Douglas County and is one of the landowners opposed to the project. Shuck said there’s a mix of neighbors surrounding her property who have signed on with NextEra or are continuing to hold out. She and Charlotte Breithaupt, a fellow area landowner, spoke with the Journal-World Friday about their shared concerns.
In short, it boils down to a lot of unanswered questions for the pair, like whether living near wind turbines might have an adverse impact on one’s health. Scientific studies have not conclusively found any such impacts.
Whether the structures would cause the unintended spread of chemicals like fungicides to neighboring properties is another. Shuck and Breithaupt are also concerned about the longevity of NextEra’s easement agreement terms — 50 years to start — and what exactly happens to defunct wind turbines once they cease operation.
Shuck said she’s also concerned about how a project like this might affect property values.
“In a case like ours, this land is our biggest investment for our children,” Shuck said. “I’ve got two more generations behind me. So if it drops our property value … I don’t have much to leave my kids, depending on how long I live.”
Another landowner that isn’t keen on the project is Hurst Coffman, a Topeka lawyer who owns part of a farm south of Lone Star Lake that has been in the family since the late 1850s. Coffman said his primary concern is what a project like the wind farm would do to the “rural habitat” of the area.
Coffman said the University of Kansas surveyed Eightmile Creek, which runs through the family’s property, a few years ago and found that the ecology around the creek was filled with “pre-settlement forest” — in other words, the vegetation in the nearby forest pre-dates when this part of Kansas was settled.
“I’m not opposed to wind energy by any means, alternative sources of electricity and so forth, but I’m concerned that a wind farm would be put into such a densely populated rural area,” Coffman said. “There are new houses going up all the time in my part of Douglas County, and I think one of the advantages of living in my part of Douglas County is you have this beautiful, rural atmosphere.”
Coffman thinks a project like this could be better served in an area with fewer homes. He said he visited western Kansas and Colorado earlier this summer and noted there were many wind turbines out in open pasture areas with no homes in sight. Coffman said he thinks that makes more sense than stationing turbines around areas with houses dotted every quarter mile.
That’s a sentiment Shuck agrees with. She thinks there are better locations for a project like this, like commercial farmland in western Kansas which she said is less densely populated than the area of rural Douglas County that NextEra is currently looking into.
“You can see, there’s a lot of families here,” Shuck said. “It’s not just one or two houses in a thousand acres.”
Another nearby landowner, Kirk Wiscombe, is on the other side of the fence, however.
Wiscombe, a full-time second-generation farmer, lives a mile east of the Osage County line and a mile south of U.S. Highway 56, and said he’s been warming to the idea of a wind farm in the area. In part, that’s because he went and saw an existing NextEra wind farm in person — Soldier Creek Wind Farm, located about an hour and a half’s drive away from Lawrence in Nemaha County. That farm, comprising 120 wind turbines, began operating in November 2020.
“I started peeling back some of the facts from some of the hearsay things out there, and actually went up and visited the farm up in Goff, Kansas, which is just north of Holton, and I was really guessing until I went and saw that,” Wiscombe told the Journal-World Wednesday. “Gosh, (the wind turbines) were quiet and really well-kept. The farmers that had them on their ground were really happy with the NextEra folks. And of course, there were some unhappy people, too.”
There isn’t any sort of dedicated page on NextEra’s website for a project in Douglas County like there is for the one in Goff; NextEra only maps projects that are actively in operation or development. The page for the Soldier Creek project does paint a picture of what economic impact a project like this could generate, however. NextEra estimates that in the first 30 years of the project, it will provide approximately $50 million in payments to landowners in Nemaha County and approximately $34 million in additional county tax revenue.
Wiscombe said he could see the economic impact a project like this would have in how it would distribute the tax burden on all the landowners and generate an increase in tax revenue. In turn, he said that would hopefully lower taxes for landowners, himself included. In line with a historic increase in property tax bills, Wiscombe said his tax payment has jumped by $820 this year.
On top of that, Wiscombe said ongoing landowner payments would be good insurance in case of a bad year in his line of work. Financially speaking, it’d also help to offset the effect that inflation has had on farming equipment recently.
Wiscombe isn’t one of the landowners to have actually signed any sort of agreement yet, nor does he know what could actually go up on his property. It could be a wind turbine, or it could be underground energy collection lines or transmission lines. There’s payments to landowners involved either way, though — $5,000 per megawatt or $1,500 per year, whichever is greater, paid in annual installments.
Either way, Wiscombe said his interactions with NextEra so far have been nothing but professional, and he hasn’t felt any pressure to sign. For his part, Wiscombe said he’s trying to be deliberate about the process and ask questions, all while also being considerate of his neighbors and balancing that against what would be a good business decision from his end.
“… There are some farmers that don’t want any part of them, and the next farmer does,” Wiscombe said. “And I think that’s OK. They don’t have to get them. Nobody’s twisting their arm to make them do it; it’s their choice. I think that’s the good thing about it. If I want some and think that I’ve got a good spot, then I’ll get one.”
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to show that it was the University of Kansas that surveyed Eightmile Creek.