Community members pack City Hall for public hearing on revised rules for wind projects

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

People spill out of the meeting room at City Hall ahead of a planning commission meeting about wind energy regulations on Monday, Oct. 23, 2023.

At Monday’s Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission meeting, members of the public filled not just every seat in the City Commission meeting room but the whole first floor lobby of Lawrence City Hall.

Those dozens of community members were all there to listen in as the Planning Commission conducted a public hearing on whether to recommend that the Douglas County Commission consider adopting a revised set of regulations for developing wind energy projects in rural areas of the county.

“Tonight is not the final chapter on wind regulations,” Planning Commission Chair Gary Rexroad said at the beginning of the meeting. “In fact, it’s not the final public hearing. When this body concludes its work, when this body comes to an agreement on whatever form and shape that is, the next step will be to send that on to the County Commission. They will take this on their timeline, at their discretion, with a full public process, as well.”

As the Journal-World has reported, the revised regulations aim to update rules for wind projects that have been on the books in Douglas County since 2016 so they better align with the county’s new rules for solar projects, and so the process of evaluating any proposed industrial-scale wind project is much more rigorous. The work has included preparing and reviewing two drafts of revised code and gathering hundreds of comments from concerned neighbors.

The Planning Commission has asserted as the process has continued that it’s not charged with creating new policy, including around whether industrial-scale renewable energy projects should be allowed in the first place. Instead, those decisions — and the final decision on the revised regulations — falls to the County Commission to decide.

But the Planning Commission was not near a decision for its own step in the process as of the Journal-World’s print deadline Monday night, as dozens of attendees continued to speak during the meeting’s public comment period. That included a group of more than 20 people, many of whom used their full three-minute public comment time limit to share a prepared presentation lasting more than an hour cumulatively.

Some of the more than three dozen commenters who had spoken at the meeting prior to 10 p.m. urged the Planning Commission to consider increasing the minimum setback requirements in the revised regulations. As the Journal-World has reported, the revision currently calls for a setback distance of 1,500 feet from a “participating” landowner’s home and from a “non-participating” landowner’s property line.

Instead of 1,500 feet, some commenters wanted setbacks at a minimum of 2,500 feet. A few wanted to see a one-mile minimum setback from a non-participating landowner’s property line, as well as from churches and cemeteries.

But while some commenters agreed on that front, others told the Planning Commission to take care not to draft regulations that are so restrictive they discourage any renewable energy development altogether. There were some in that group who said the county should avoid adopting a “not in my backyard” mentality and who worried that some concerns offered by neighbors about instances of failing or broken wind turbines were based on isolated incidents.

Members of the Planning Commission planned to take part in a more robust discussion about whether to increase setback distances following the public comment portion of the meeting.

Other commenters urged the Planning Commission to “slow down” the process of revising the regulations; county planning staff noted at the beginning of the meeting that they’d been receiving public comment on the topic for nearly two years so far.

The Planning Commission can take a number of actions to end the public hearing. It can either vote to approve forwarding the regulations to the County Commission as is or with agreed-upon modifications, vote to deny recommending the regulations, or defer making a decision until a future Planning Commission meeting.


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