Douglas County leaders approve permits to install devices that gauge the viability of a future wind energy project on southwestern county properties

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Ahead of the Douglas County Commission's Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023 meeting, Commissioner Patrick Kelly talks to members of the public about the commission's procedures for offering public comment.

Despite protests from a room full of dozens of Douglas County residents, county leaders on Wednesday approved permits for an out-of-state energy firm to install devices on properties scattered around southwestern Douglas County that gauge the viability of a future wind energy project.

The decisions — taken in five separate votes by the Douglas County Commission at its meeting Wednesday night — followed more than two hours of cumulative public comment mostly from about 20 people who said they live in the southwestern portion of Douglas County. That’s an area Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources has previously confirmed it’s exploring as a potential site for developing a large-scale wind project.

One of those approved permits will allow NextEra to install a 60-meter meteorological evaluation tower on property owned by Jere M. McElhaney southeast of the intersection of North 400 Road and East 550 Road in Marion Township. That approval came with a pair of additional conditions — that the company must ensure it protects nearby infrastructure that supports internet access and that it must inform pilots who operate cropdusting planes in the area the tower would be going up before it’s installed.

“(Neighbors are) very nervous about wind turbine development, I hear it, 100%,” Commissioner Patrick Kelly said. “I want to thank you for coming out and sharing your thoughts … and I really appreciate that. I don’t necessarily, personally, find a connection yet to MET tower development with a wind turbine. I think it’s gathering information.”

The commission approved a previous request from NextEra to install one of these towers on another property to the west of McElhaney’s in late November.

The other four permits will allow NextEra to install sonic detection and ranging — or SoDAR — units on three properties south of U.S. Highway 56 and one property just west of Lone Star Lake. Commissioner Karen Willey opposed the motions for two of those devices, so they were each approved by a 2-1 vote.

The devices are used to remotely measure wind, direction and turbulence data on a specific site to gauge the viability of wind projects. Generally, they’re placed on a trailer and left in a field, where they emit a chirping or beeping sound once every couple seconds and measure the returned signal.

All five permits were approved for one year with the possibility of renewal on an annual basis for up to five years.

Memos from the county’s planning staff note that installing both types of devices is typically one of the first steps toward a wind energy project being developed.

A worry that such devices are a foot in the door for a large-scale development was one of many concerns that came up during nearly two hours of public comment from around 20 residents Wednesday. The majority who spoke voiced adamant opposition not just to any of the permit requests on the agenda but to renewable energy projects entirely.

Some commenters said wind turbines and solar energy conversion systems should be banned outright. Others referred to wind turbines as a “monstrosity” and a long-term “cancer to the land.” Multiple people asked the commission for a moratorium on any action related to wind energy development, with one individual asking that it extend indefinitely until the two additional members of the recently-expanded five-seat commission are seated in 2024.

And as for the device permits themselves, some folks urged commissioners to simply deny them. Other speakers, many of them neighboring property owners, said they didn’t want something like a meteorological evaluation tower located so close to their properties or were concerned about the decibel level of noise emitted by SoDAR units.

Kelly reminded folks multiple times that the commission is not considering any project or even the proposed amended regulations for wind farms yet, the latter of which are still a work in progress for the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission.

That’s a point Willey and Commissioner Shannon Reid both echoed and said was important in informing decisions like these permit approvals.

“We are not talking about, we’re not voting on, anything about wind turbines tonight,” Willey said. “We can only vote on what’s in front of us on the agenda, and that is the MET tower (and SoDAR units).”


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