A  Community Divided: County at Odds Over Wind Turbines

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By Managing Editor Teri L. Hansen

The people of McPherson and the surrounding area have drawn lines in the sand on a number of issues in the past. Recently, one issue in particular has created contention, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in years. From silent protests to five-foot signs, the wind turbine subject has sparked a response from all sides.

The push by power companies to replace carbon-based fuel with that of wind power is encountering fierce blow back from community members fighting tooth and nail to keep the turbines out of their backyards.

“Massive turbines and houses don’t mix,” said Glenda Taylor, a landowner in New Gottland township.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that 2019 will see the highest amount of wind capacity added to the country’s electricity grid since 2012. The American Wind Energy Association’s 2018 Annual Market Report showed that Kansas is now the number one producer for wind energy production as a share of total electricity generation.

While it may be a growing industry, it is clear that many in Mac do not want it. Those in opposition cite land damages, decrease in property values and potential health effects as a few of the reasons they are resisting.

They are not alone. NextEra announced plans to install 80 turbines in Reno County. The residents went to battle for months against the build. While a majority of commissioners were in support of the project, landowners won out after signing a petition in protest that required a unanimous vote for approval. With one commissioner voting against, it was enough to block the build. This was the first wind farm rejection in a decade in Kansas.

While a large faction of outspoken opposition has made themselves known, there are folks in favor of a turbine project in the county.

“Right now, the people that are against it are the ones who are the most outspoken,” Karla Blayblock Stewart said. She and husband Raymond Stewart live in McPherson and own land outside the city. “I think the majority is a silent majority, I think they are sitting quiet right now until the moratorium is raised.”

For those like the Stewarts, the pros outweigh the cons. A clean and renewable source of power has been the catch phrase for wind energy and with everyone from impassioned 16-year-old girls to enraged adults pushing for environmental change, it seems like a good, cost effective alternative.

“My dad worked for BPU for years and years and retired from there. And he had done a lot of research back then and didn’t understand why we weren’t using the wind energy that was available. It’s a clean source of energy versus some of the things that aren’t,” Blaylock Stewart said. “It’s a clean source of energy. They make sure all the energy that is collected is sold before they stop it.”

The Stewarts believe so strongly that they have a contract with EDF Renewables. The contract is for two tracts of land. For them, the benefits are more than environmental. The monetary incentive is hard to turn down, both personally and for the surrounding area.

“They’re fixing up the roads in Marion County now. The commissioners had an article about how the companies are stepping up and getting the roads fixed and such,” Blaylock Stewart said. “I think this would be a plus for McPherson County anyway to get some of their roads fixed and help financially.”

Not that most don’t think about what is good for the environment. With agriculture being a huge part of Kansas life and culture, what is good for the planet is a priority. However, how is it all weighed and what takes precedence? Is wind energy the save-all and best way to reduce the carbon footprint?

“McPherson County citizens are a proud lot. While I think most want to do their best to reduce carbon emissions, many are not willing to pay the price of turning our skyline into a wasteland. It upsets our quality of life and alters the nature of our community,” Taylor said. “We’re not a poor county. The people here are not willing to lose their beautiful vistas so a few landowners (and a company 84% owned by the French government) can make money, especially because the electricity won’t stay in McPherson County.”

That is another point made by the resistance. The resource doesn’t actually stay in the city, county or even state. At 36%, Kansas gets more electricity from wind, than any other state. Even with that being said, Blaylock Stewart likens energy as just another commodity from Kansas.

“People claim that all the energy that is collected is sold out of Kansas, but on the other hand, we don’t keep all of our wheat or oil or corn or anything else all in McPherson or in Kansas,” she said. “And people say, well it takes up so much of the agriculture land, a lot of this is in pastureland so it is not going to effect that. The number of turbines per acre is not going to cut down on the agricultural aspect hardly at all.”

A problem in the debate is that so much of it is subjective.

“I live in rural McPherson County and enjoy the unobstructed view of the valley including sun rises, sun sets, and the night sky,” Donna Nelson, another rural McPherson landowner said. “A constant hum or blinking lights would not be acceptable.”

The aesthetics of the farms have been brought into question, but whether something is pleasing to the eye is very opinion based.

“They say they are ugly, but an oil well is not pretty,” Blaylock Stewart said. “I think they are tranquil and calming.”

One concern is whether the damage done by the installation and upkeep is worth it or comparable to that of other structures like oil wells, etc. For the Stewarts, their contract states that any damage done to their land will be fixed immediately and if anything is taken out, it will be put back the way it was prior.

“We’ve had salt damage on our land from oil wells that has ruined several acres of land. I am not against people that have oil wells, we have an oil well. I am not against people that have the high line or cell phone towers on their land,” Blaylock Stewart said. “In the time we live in, people are not going to give up their luxuries and take down towers. I think people that are con, are people that have oil money coming in or a hobby farm of maybe four to five acres and I don’t think they should have a say in what anyone does with their land.”

In the end, the Stewarts feel that it is their land and they have a right to do as they see fit with that land.

“My main problem right now is people telling you what you can do and what you can’t do with your land. It would be just like me going next door and telling somebody I don’t like the color of your house; you need to paint it I’m offended,” Blaylock Stewart said. “We have been stewards of the land for five generations now and I would never do anything that I thought would jeopardize that for my grandchildren.”

Taylor and others like her are no less passionate about their dislike of the wind farm proposal. They see it from a different point of view. For one, the medical consequences of the turbines are widely disputed. Some believe that the inaudible noise or infrasound can be detrimental to the health of those in the vicinity.

“This topic is important to me because I’m worried about the health of my children and family. People can pooh-pooh the health aspects of this all they want, but more and more information are coming to light about the dangers of living even within a few miles of these massive turbines. I personally have a pacemaker and cannot fathom living under a magnetic field of this size. The specifications on my pacemaker clearly state that I am to avoid all magnetic fields,” said Diane Frazier, a rural McPherson resident. “Also, it terrifies me to have my kids living with the infrasound and voltage associated with these things.”

Health impacts have been a subject of much debate. An Australian study found that wind farms do, in fact, emit infrasound, at levels close to what would be found in urban environments. However, NextEra commissioned a study from a third-party that found sound levels would remain below 45 decibels, the maximum volume recommended by the World Health Organization. A 15-year research study on infrasound found some associations between exposure and sleep-related problems, difficulty concentrating and headaches for people living near the sources of low-frequency noise. The proposal for the McPherson area would bring in turbines of a larger size (600 feet) than those in other areas and the research is debatable and dependent on the source.

Another fear is that property values will decrease in the area due to the proximity of the wind farms. Rather than being an attraction to the area, the fear is that they will be a deterrent.

“Money. The majority of people who support the wind farm have signed leases. While the figures are not set in stone, leaseholders would receive approximately $8,000 per year, per turbine. For the rest of us – with houses within three to four miles of a turbine – we stand to lose a substantial amount of our property value,” Taylor said. “I would ask them – if they had the choice of buying a new house in a spot with a beautiful view, or an identical house sitting in the middle of an industrial wind power plant, at the same price – which would they choose?  If they’re honest, few to none would buy the house with turbines looming overhead.”

Again, a difficult issue to judge as evidence is difficult to gather in either direction. Though the Wichita State University Center for Economic Development and Business Research attempted a study on behalf of the Hutchinson-Reno County Chamber of Commerce. It found no statistically significant evidence in either raising or lowering property value around 23 Kansas wind projects.

County after county has faced the same turmoil and asked for some form of state law intervention. With nothing in place at a state-wide level, it leaves locals to duke it out. Though a hearing is in the works for House Bill 2273 which will determine if a turbine will be required to be 1.5 miles from homes.

At the local level, adding more fuel to the fire is the question of whether the county commission can be unbiased in future decisions.

“The board voted to extend the moratorium on any company submitting application for a Commercial Wind Energy Project until the E911 system including towers are installed and excepted by the Board of County Commissioners as approved,” County Administrator Rick Witte said. “I do not have a projected date as to when the towers will be installed. When the county has ownership of each property installation can proceed and also waiting on two properties for final Federal Aviation Administration approval.”

It has been brought to residents’ attention that County Commissioner Keith Becker, like Blaylock Stewart has a contract in place on land he owns as well. Community members have expressed their concerns about his vote in the matter. When contacted about the issue he responded in a similar fashion to Witte.

“Currently the McPherson County has a moratorium on any applications for permits for wind farms,” Becker said.

Similar to Reno County, if the issue does come down to the wire, a protest petition would be required to block the movement. A unanimous vote would be required only if a protest petition was submitted by property owners in notification area, Witte said.

For the time being, contradicting signs will continue to be seen side-by-side and the issue will continue to divide the county and put neighbors at odds.

“This issue is tearing our community apart – pitting neighbors, friends, and family members against one another,” Taylor said.

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