Planning Commission to host public hearing on revised rules for wind projects; here’s how they stack up to the existing rules

photo by: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File

Wind turbines are silhouetted against the sky at sunset Dec. 17, 2021, near Ellsworth, Kansas.

Depending on how things shake out Monday, the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission could take the next significant step toward revising the regulations for developing wind energy projects in rural areas of Douglas County.

For more than a year, county planning staff and members of the Planning Commission have been working to update the rules — which have been on the books since 2016, according to a planning staff report — so they better align with the county’s new rules for solar projects. That work has included preparing and reviewing two drafts of revised code, one of them line-by-line, and gathering hundreds of comments from concerned neighbors.

Now, the Planning Commission will be hosting a public hearing at its meeting on Monday that could end with commissioners recommending that the Douglas County Commission vote to adopt the rules at a future meeting. The meeting agenda makes it clear that the end result of the Planning Commission’s work is a proposed revision which adds “substantial language” to the existing regulations.

“The proposed regulations are designed to establish rigorous parameters for application processing, regulatory review, design, siting, operation and maintenance, and eventual decommissioning and reclamation of the land,” a report from planning staff included with the agenda reads.

The Journal-World examined the current wind rules and the revised draft up for consideration and found a few key updates. But perhaps the most significant difference is the draft rules’ length — the existing regulations are about eight pages long, compared to the nearly 40-page revised document. According to Monday’s meeting agenda, what’s on the books now is a “brief set of standards” with a few definitions, plus a blanket distance for property line setbacks of 110% of the total height of a wind turbine tower and 1,500 feet for setbacks from dwellings.

Differences in application requirements

Today, if a developer wanted to bring a commercial wind energy system to Douglas County, they’d simply need to submit a conditional use permit. These permits can be approved following a public hearing process examining whether the project, based on its nature or scale, has the potential to negatively affect the surrounding area’s land uses or character, among other things.

Action on conditional use permits is “purely discretionary,” according to the county’s existing zoning regulations. The final decision on conditional use permits happens at the Douglas County Commission level, where county leaders take action based on the facts and circumstances discovered by the Planning Commission and county planning staff during the application review process.

There hasn’t been an application for a commercial-scale wind energy project submitted under the existing regulations, and if there had been, the project would have to comply with all applicable zoning and building code requirements, including applying for a conditional use permit. But that’s all such a project would need; according to Monday’s agenda, the existing code doesn’t specify or define important impact studies that would be necessary to rigorously evaluate a future project.

The revised regulations seek to rectify that and make the process of evaluating a proposed project much more rigorous. They require nearly a dozen separate assessments and plans for visual, noise and environmental impacts, lighting, stormwater management, traffic impact and emergency mitigation, and decommissioning.

Beyond all of that, the revised rules also note that an independent third-party review can be employed, at the expense of the project applicant, if the reviewing body finds that it doesn’t have the appropriate expertise to review or interpret any of those materials.

Setbacks and height limits

One element of the revised rules that may not be clear until Monday is the specific standards for setback distances. Planning Commission Chair Gary Rexroad has also led a smaller subcommittee dedicated to a more thorough review of the latest draft of the rules, and at a community meeting earlier this month told community members that the subcommittee thought a more robust conversation should be had with the full group about increasing setback distances. That conversation is expected to take place at Monday’s Planning Commission meeting.

What’s in the revision for now is a setback distance of 1,500 feet from a “participating” landowner’s home, the same as in the existing regulations, and from a “non-participating” landowner’s property line. Those two terms describing types of landowners — “participating” and “non-participating” — are another new addition to the revised rules. The agenda says the terms are meant to differentiate between “those who will benefit greatest” from a commercial wind energy project and other landowners who won’t see the same benefits. These terms are also part of a list of more than 20 terms defined in the new rules.

“The property line distinction for non-participating landowners allows for a non-participant to have additional distance from a (commercial wind) turbine on any portion of their property, not just their home,” the planning staff report reads.

The report also notes that the setback requirements in the new rules have been expanded to include not just occupied structures but also a road’s right-of-way, overhead utility lines and any sensitive areas identified in the regulations.

As for height, the existing rules don’t establish a maximum height for a wind turbine tower. In the revised rules, the permitted height of a turbine is 600 feet, measured from the tower’s foundation to the tip of its rotor blade. The rules note that the County Commission has the discretion to approve a greater height for individual turbines, though.

Public participation — and outcry

If past meetings about the county’s rules for wind projects are any indication, it’s likely that Monday’s meeting will draw a crowd. Many rural community members have been vocal in their opposition to the idea that any sort of commercial wind or solar energy development should be allowed in Douglas County at all. Some of them have said they reside in a portion of southwestern Douglas County that one out-of-state company, Florida-based energy firm NextEra Energy Resources, has been exploring as the potential home of a portion of a large-scale wind energy project.

For example, the early October community meeting hosted at the Baldwin City library was attended by a standing-room-only crowd. A public meeting held at the beginning of 2023, shortly after the first draft of revised regulations was published, was similarly well-attended. Even meetings that weren’t about the wind rules at all, but instead involved a decision from the County Commission about testing for the viability of a future wind project, have prompted hours of public comments from dozens of community members.

But another indicator could be the agenda packet for Monday’s meeting, which is more than 700 pages long and filled largely with emailed comments from community members. Many of those comments call on the Planning Commission to not allow commercial wind projects to develop here in Douglas County at all; Rexroad told community members earlier this month that that’s a decision that falls on the County Commission, not planning staff.

There are also at least a few comments originating from outside of Douglas County, including some from Osage County Commissioner Jay Bailey. Bailey’s comments ask for the Planning Commission to consider requiring setbacks from neighboring counties like his that have decided not to allow commercial wind farms.

“If there is no setback, I would ask that one be put in place for county lines that do not support the commercial wind farms,” Bailey said in one message to planning staff. “I would think a 3-mile setback is a good start.”

The Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission will host the public hearing Monday at 6:30 p.m. at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St.


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