Planning Commission votes to defer decision on wind regulations after 8-hour meeting; hearing to continue at a future meeting

photo by: Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission screenshot

The Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission wraps up its Monday, Oct. 23, 2023 meeting. The eight-hour meeting extended into the early hours of the following morning, ending around 2:30 a.m.

After a marathon meeting on Monday night, the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission ultimately decided it needed more time before making a final decision about the revised regulations for wind energy projects in rural areas of Douglas County.

As the Journal-World has reported, the Planning Commission was hosting a public hearing to consider whether to recommend that the Douglas County Commission adopt the updated rules. After a more than eight-hour meeting, the group voted unanimously to defer that decision and continue the hearing at a future meeting.

As of Tuesday afternoon, it wasn’t clear when that might be, though the Planning Commission does have a second meeting scheduled for Wednesday of this week when it’s currently slated to consider a pair of rezoning requests.

For now, that means that the next time the group discusses the regulations, it’ll be picking up the hearing where it left off this week rather than starting a new public hearing with another full public comment period. In the meantime, planning staff will compile a report summarizing the Planning Commission’s discussion thus far and any smaller-scale changes to the draft regulations the group may want to approve when the public hearing eventually concludes.

The meeting lasted until the early hours of Tuesday morning, ending around 2:30 a.m. In part, that’s because the Planning Commission heard more than four hours of public comments from 80 community members, who were part of a group of dozens of people that packed the first floor of Lawrence City Hall to listen to the hearing. The public comment period didn’t close until shortly after midnight.

The group actually voted twice during the meeting on whether to defer their decision on the regulations. The first motion to defer happened not long after the public comment period ended and prior to any further discussion between commissioners; it failed on a 5-4 vote.

One problem that commissioners mentioned was a roughly 500-page addition to the agenda materials that happened the day of the meeting. County planning staff said much of the new material was comments, reports and other supplementary material submitted by members of the public; some of them were submitted just before the deadline for public comments, and others had been received in earlier stages of the revision process.

Planning Commissioner Charlie Thomas said he wanted to defer because he hadn’t had a chance to review the new materials yet.

“You didn’t have to look around or listen much tonight (to see) how smart, how much digging and research that people have gone into before they came here tonight and spoke, that might very well be in the 300 pages here that we have not gotten a chance to look at,” Thomas said. “I heard (Planning Commission Chair Gary Rexroad) say we’re going to look at setbacks; I am loath to do that when we haven’t looked at all the information. … I just think we are selling the public and ourselves short when we don’t have time to look at all the information before we make decisions.”

Another planning commissioner, Mike Kelso, said that by the time the group was getting ready to discuss setback distances, it was nearly 2 a.m. Kelso said he thought the group needed to be “of sound body and sound mind” to have a productive discussion, and he was not feeling that way after working 10 hours that day and then taking part in the lengthy meeting.

But the group still spent a little time discussing setback distances, a topic Rexroad had previously said would be covered in more detail at Monday’s meeting. Rexroad’s subcommittee has been looking at the draft regulations in more detail, and it wanted to get input from the group on whether to increase setback distances, along with whether there should be setbacks from cemeteries, churches and the county’s borders.

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. Some commenters on Monday night said they thought setbacks should be a minimum of 2,500 feet instead, and a few asked for a 1-mile or even 3-mile minimum setback distance.

County planning staff provided some visual aids to help commissioners understand how different setback distances would affect landowners who might want to participate in a wind energy project. For example, planner Cece Riley said a 2,500-foot setback distance would mean that a landowner would need a roughly 574-acre radius around a wind turbine to comply with the regulations.

A 1-mile setback, meanwhile, would require a 2,560-acre radius for compliance, and a 3-mile setback would require a 5,760-acre radius.

“We did some quick math; at this time, there are not any (single) parcels in Douglas County with 5,760 acres or 2,560 acres,” Riley said. “These are just some things to keep in mind when thinking about setbacks and thinking about how that affects what one person might need to have.”

Planning staff also showed where wind turbines could be placed if the rules required a 3-mile buffer between wind turbines and properties managed by the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. Riley said that in Douglas County, those properties would include Clinton Lake and its accompanying state park and wildlife area and Douglas State Fishing Lake.

Rexroad said he wouldn’t support increasing the setback distance to 2,500 feet, since it would likely be “prohibitive” for any future development and take policy decisions away from the Douglas County Commission. He said that even with a 1,500-foot setback distance, there were other provisions in the draft rules that would adequately address concerns such as flickering from the turbines or ice being flung off of them in cold weather.

Planning Commissioner Sharon Ashworth also said that she hadn’t seen any “credible evidence” that a 2,500-foot setback would do anything that regulations on noise level and other impacts don’t already address. She added that setbacks likely wouldn’t be a uniform 1,500 feet for every wind turbine in a project, and they would instead depend on the turbines’ immediate surroundings.


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