Wind Project Sparks Battle in Rural Ohio

Source: By Kris Maher, Wall Street Journal • Posted: Sunday, September 25, 2022

Bitter debate among neighbors comes amid nationwide push for alternative energy sources

Opponents of a proposed wind farm in Crawford County, Ohio, opened an office in downtown Bucyrus with information about the project.
Opponents of a proposed wind farm in Crawford County, Ohio, opened an office in downtown Bucyrus with information about the project. KRIS MAHER/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

BUCYRUS, Ohio—A fight over a big wind project in central Ohio has become so contentious that some neighbors, longtime friends and even family members have stopped talking to each other.

The dispute roiling Crawford County, a mostly flat expanse of farm country north of Columbus, is pitting farmers and other landowners who support the wind project and the new revenue streams it promises against others who fear it could permanently damage the landscape and their quality of life.

The 300-megawatt Apex Clean Energy project, which could cover a swath of the county with 50 to 60 wind turbines that reach up to 650 feet high, is being put to a vote in a referendum in November. The referendum is the first countywide vote related to wind or solar development in Ohio, where a total of 10 counties passed resolutions this year banning such projects.

The Crawford County Courthouse in Bucyrus, Ohio. The fight in the conservative-leaning county has been framed around property rights related to the wind project.Photo: Kris Maher/The Wall Street Journal

“If you’re pro-wind and an anti-winder knows that you’re pro-wind, you don’t talk to them,” Dan Bute, a fiscal specialist with a county agency who supports the wind project, said at a coffee shop in downtown Bucyrus, the county seat.

Similar battles are playing out in Texas, Virginia and New York, with more poised to come, as the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act is boosting incentives for renewable projects. First Solar Inc., the biggest solar-panel maker in the U.S., said in August that it would spend $1.2 billion to increase manufacturingdomestically by 75%.

Utility-scale energy projects—from power transmission lines to wind farms and large-scale solar projects—frequently have faced a variety of hurdles, like permitting delays and challenges brought by local communities and environmental groups.

‘If you’re pro-wind and an anti-winder knows that you’re pro-wind, you don’t talk to them,’ said Dan Bute, a fiscal specialist with a county agency who supports the wind project.Photo: Kris Maher/The Wall Street Journal

This past week, Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.), released details of a bill aimed at speeding the approval process for energy projects, including a natural-gas pipeline. So far, he has struggled to win support for the proposal.

In Crawford County, farmers and other backers of the wind project say they welcome the revenue brought in by land leases and other payments to the county. Many say they see renewables as a way to lessen the nation’s reliance on fossil fuels and help address climate change.

Meanwhile, opponents say the development will disrupt rural life, damage property values and put birds and other wildlife at risk. Some said they don’t want farmland to be taken out of use and don’t believe renewable projects will deliver reliable energy to the grid.

The fight in the conservative-leaning county has been framed around property rights—namely, whether the right of some people to develop their land infringes on the right of others to enjoy their property as they always have.

Apex has leased land in Crawford County for the past several years. But an anti-wind group gained momentum this year, and in May county commissioners passed a resolution by 2-1 vote banning wind projects under a state law, passed last year, that allows counties to ban wind and solar projects.

The resolution nearly killed the project, known as Honey Creek Wind. But a political-action committee funded by Apex gathered enough signatures this summer to put the resolution itself to a countywide vote in November.

An Apex spokeswoman said the wind developer still hopes to complete the project by 2026 at a cost of between $400 million and $500 million.

Many people hope the vote will settle the issue and ease tensions in the county. But a bitter campaign is just getting under way.

“There’s been a lot of division and heartache in this county over the past year,” said Doug Weisenauer, a Republican county commissioner who supports the wind project.

In Bucyrus, a former bank has become an anti-wind campaign headquarters. Its outside is plastered with messages and hand-painted posters. One shows a man kicking a smaller figure holding a wind turbine and says, “Give Apex the Boot!”

Josh Strain, an airline pilot, stopped by to pick up a yellow anti-wind yard sign. He said he opposes the project because he doesn’t think wind power is viable and he worries that shadows from turbine blades, known as shadow flicker, could pass over his home.

Josh Strain, in Bucyrus, Ohio, outside a campaign office for a group that opposes the project. ‘If this goes in, I might as well live downtown or in an industrial park,’ he said. Photo: Kris Maher/The Wall Street Journal

“Every time the sun sets in the evening we will be subject to shadow flicker,” he said. “If this goes in, I might as well live downtown or in an industrial park.”

Along a road out of Bucyrus, “NO Wind Turbines in Crawford County” signs are planted on one side. On the other, blue billboards that Apex purchased tout an annual payment of $2.7 million the company would make under Ohio state law to the county, school districts and townships.

Landowners who lease land within the project’s boundaries are entitled to royalty payments during its operation, which could be 30 years or more, according to the company.

Chet Johnson, who leased 58 acres for the project in 2019, said he hopes Apex will build a turbine on a ridge where he lives, which would entitle him to additional payments for hosting a turbine. He said other people shouldn’t be able to prevent him from making money on his property..

“To me, that is ludicrous thinking,” said Mr. Johnson, who works in Whirlpool’s dryer division.

But Dale Wolfe and his wife, Joan Wolfe, say a wind project could transform the quiet of their 40 acres where thick cornrows grow near their house. They worry about roads being torn up and noise from turbines.

“Part of the reason we enjoy living in a rural community is the outdoors and being able to go out at night and look at the stars,” said Mr. Wolfe, a retired deputy sheriff. “We’ve got enough towers and such now.”

Dale and Joan Wolfe oppose the wind project in Crawford County because they worry it will disrupt rural life. ‘We’ve got enough towers and such now,’ Mr. Wolfe said. Photo: Kris Maher/The Wall Street Journal

Write to Kris Maher at Kris.Maher@wsj.com