Alternative-energy controversy pulsated through Neosho County's political circuits Tuesday with a force tantamount to one of the gigantic 600-foot-tall wind turbines at the root of this neighbor-to-neighbor clash in southeast Kansas.
Spokes of a passionate debate reached into rural economic development, corporate secrecy, property values, political leadership and green energy. The scuffle raised questions at the Capitol about whether it was time for state government to set standards for turbine setbacks from homes, access to service roads by power companies, guaranteed payments in lieu of taxes and decommissioning of old turbines for benefit of counties without a zoning framework to guide wind farm projects.
This impetus was Apex Clean Energy's strategy of investing an estimated $500 million in installation and operation of 139 massive turbines and to swiftly gain approval for the project in time to gain the full benefit of federal tax credits.
David Orr, a Democrat appointed a week ago to complete the unexpired term of his ex-wife on the Neosho County Commission, found himself suddenly in the middle of crossfire. The appointment was made by Gov. Laura Kelly, a fan of wind energy, because former Commissioner Jennifer Orr was elected as a political independent, meaning neither local Democratic or GOP organizations could make the pick after she resigned.
"Everybody is in such fear mode," said Orr, who expressed frustration with questionable assertions by opponents and the developer's tight grip on meaningful data. "I'm pro-landowner rights. I'm pro-renewable energy. I've got to find the middle ground."
Orr joined Commissioners Paul Westhoff and David Bideau, who have been at odds with each other on the proposed Neosho Wind Ridge Project.
The county commission scheduled an executive session Wednesday with attorneys working on a blueprint that would be released to the public before an up-or-down vote by the commissioners. It is possible a written plan could emerge Thursday at the next commission meeting, but neither Bideau nor Orr said they would be comfortable voting on a deal without securing fresh public input.
Opponents of the project have made their voices heard, and folks aligned with wind developer Apex Clean Energy haven't been shy about expressing themselves.
Bryan Coover, a Galesburg opponent of the Neosho Ridge project but a fan of green energy, said there was potential for Apex to locate a pair of turbines near his property. He is convinced his property value would plummet if the big white poles and blades became a reality.
He said political power of energy companies was used to exploit rural communities in ways that did long-term damage to quality of life for residents — especially galling to people receiving no direct financial benefit.
"I'm pro-wind. I'm just not for wind without regulation," Coover said.
Mark Goodwin, president and CEO of Apex, of Charlottesville, Va., opposed an attempt by the 2019 Legislature to adopt "exceedingly burdensome" wind farm siting and process regulations that had potential to bring an immediate halt to new construction in Kansas.
He predicted Neosho Ridge would generate over a 25-year period about $22 million in county property tax revenue, as well as $26 million for local public schools and $13 million for community colleges. There would be hundreds of temporary construction jobs and 10 permanent operational positions, he said.
Before stepping down, Jennifer Orr complained about being stalked by people trying to influence her decision on the wind farm. She was absent from more than a dozen commission meetings, a fact contributing to her resignation.
The county's discussion has become entangled with theories about health and environmental influences of wind turbines, along with the claims about potential job growth and strengthening of the tax base in Neosho County. There is apprehension on both sides of the issue that a deal will come together through behind-the-scenes maneuvering.
Allegations of conflict of interest, specifically aimed at Bideau, circulated among skeptics of the wind farm. There is an assertion that Bideau, in his capacity as an attorney, represented interests of property owners leasing land to Apex.
"I have a lot of clients," Bideau said. "I have not counseled or given legal advance to anyone who signed a lease."
Orr said current plans called for turbine setbacks of 1,025 feet from landowners partnering with Apex and a distance of 1,540 feet from landowners not collaborating with the company. Doubling the margin, as some people have urged, will make it impossible to build wind farms in southern Neosho County because of existing density of homes, Orr said.
In the past, Bideau said he wouldn't have a problem living 1,000 feet from a turbine. Westoff said 1,000 feet would be an insufficient setback. Apex has resisted pressure to compress the turbine footprint with wider setbacks, Orr said.
Retired cattleman Galen Ackerman said politicians engaged in making decisions that influence location of turbines need a good picture of what has been contemplated in Neosho County. The top point of each blade on Apex turbines will be 200 feet higher than the statue atop the Kansas Capitol dome, he said.
"Imagine a Boeing 747 oriented sideways. That’s the approximate size of the spinning blades on the turbines," Ackerman said.
Lori Menold, a registered nurse and resident of rural Nemaha County, said wind farms had potential to adversely influence health of humans. Impact on people can be minimized if safe setbacks are enforced, she said, but wind companies were adept at shielding themselves in lease agreements from citizen complaints about noise, lights and other issues.
Cunningham resident Alan Albers, who supports the project in Neosho County, said individual property rights shouldn't be thwarted by outsiders.
"I feel that the central point to this dispute is that landowners should be allowed to do what they choose with their land, and not the neighbors making this decision," he said.