Turbine proposal whips up dispute in rural Wis.

Source: By Sarah Whites-Koditschek, Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism/Associated Press • Posted: Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Blanc leaned against the glass door to her expansive backyard where they see a lot of wildlife, including owls.

“This is the best place to watch stars ever because there’s no light out here,” she said. “Now we’ll have … flashing lights.”

Blanc was referring to a plan for 24 wind turbines, nearly 500 feet tall, including one tower that she said would be 1,500 feet from the couple’s home in the town of Jefferson, a rural farming community of 1,200 people near the Illinois border in Green County.

On a February afternoon, Blanc and Minucci drove along a county road in their tan 1999 Oldsmobile to a neighbor’s house to hand out yellow posters with the image of a wind turbine with a circle and red slash mark across it. The protest signs are in yards dotted throughout the town.

Blanc learned about plans in October for the wind project when EDF Renewables, the American subsidiary of a French company, sent her a notice in the mail.

EDF’s 65-megawatt Sugar River wind project would include 24 turbines spread over 5,870 acres. According to the company, the project would bring in more than $250,000 in tax revenue annually. It has the capacity to provide power for 20,000 homes, according to the pro-renewables group Renew Wisconsin.

The project reflects a reignited interest among wind developers in the state, according to Renew Wisconsin Policy Director Michael Vickerman. Currently, wind power provides less than 3% of Wisconsin’s electricity.

The fight between residents and renewable energy is playing out in Wisconsin and other states as large wind and solar projects — which in some cases can produce electricity more cheaply than coal-fired power plants — have begun cropping up in rural areas.

After receiving the notice, Blanc organized her neighbors to rally against the turbines. Under state law, projects are automatically approved after 90 days if a local municipality does not pass a wind ordinance to specify conditions for approval of the project, so the situation felt urgent.

She left the poster with a neighbor and got back in the car.

“This is the exciting life of a wind warrior,” Blanc said, laughing. “But mostly I just sit around and, like, write emails.”

Blanc said she is not anti-wind, she just does not think turbines should be close to residences. She is worried her property’s value will fall with wind turbines towering above it.

“Who is going to want to buy it living in the shadow of giant, industrial wind?” she asked, raising a question studies have failed to answer, as some find a decline in value and others do not.

“We’re working musicians. We have no pension. We have no retirement. So this 5 acres and this janky old farm house is, like, it,” Blanc said. “This is what we’ve worked for our entire lives.”

At an evening Jefferson Town Board meeting in late February, a roomful of more than 70 community members faced three town board members and the town attorney, at times booing and jeering.

The board was considering a possible wind ordinance after months of public pressure. Local governments cannot enact restrictions on wind projects that exceed the standards set out in the state’s wind energy siting law, Public Service Commission Rule 128.

Prior to the law’s enactment in 2012, some local governments blocked projects in their areas. PSC 128 was a way to provide predictability to the permitting process and help prevent impasses. Under the law, any local government that passes a wind ordinance gains the power to regulate, approve or reject a wind project, within the bounds set by the state.

Yet some residents, like Blanc, want the town to push the limits of the law and require setbacks from residences greater than the standard of 1,250 feet outlined in PSC 128 for properties not a part of the project. The town planning commission supported those changes.

But the town’s attorney, Daniel Bartholf, advised the board against challenging the law, as did an attorney for EDF. Ultimately, the Jefferson Town Board rejected the proposed ordinance. Board Chairman Harvey Mandel said in an interview that he did not want to approve an ordinance that would invite a lawsuit.

According to Vickerman, the average annual lease for hosting a turbine in Wisconsin is roughly $5,000 to $7,000 a year. EDF Development Director PJ Saliterman said the company will start off paying a total of $300,000 a year to landowners and neighbors, an amount it expects will increase.

Not everyone in Jefferson opposes the project.

Tim Bender, a truck driver, and his wife, Linda, a stay-at-home mom, were among the few proponents willing to speak at the Jefferson Town Board meeting.

“I just can’t stand to sit back and watch an opportunity pass us by,” Tim Bender said.

The Benders have a “good neighbor” agreement with EDF. They would like to host a turbine too, but their property is too small. Tim Bender said his support is not motivated by personal profit. He favors renewable energy because it is better for the environment than natural gas or coal.

“Why not benefit from clean, free wind?” he asked. “We have maybe three days out of the year when we don’t have wind. Why shouldn’t we benefit from it?”