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Commission passes wind ordinance changes

LONG-WINDED: About 100 people listened or read along as Miami County Attorney Pat Roberts and Zoning Adminstrator/Building Commissioner Tammy Gamble took turns reading the 18-page document of proposed changes to the 2011 wind energy conversion ordinance Wednesday evening.

BY CAROLINE EGGERS - ceggers@perutribune.com

In response to Renewable Energy Systems’ proposal to build 75 wind turbines in the area, the Miami County Plan/Building Commission voted 6-3 Wednesday evening in favor of passing the 18 pages of proposed changes to the 2011 wind energy conversion ordinance.

The revised ordinance includes a stipulation that turbines would need to be a minimum of 2,000 feet away from property lines.

Directly before the vote, the commission voted 5-4 against tabling the vote until further research could be made – after Commissioner Larry West asked a question that only one other person could answer.

“Can we in good conscious vote tonight without knowing the benefits of this project?” West asked. “Are we going to let a small group of residents intimidate us to deny our farmers, North Miami schools and all the taxpayers in Miami County of the benefits of this project?”

West proposed the commission hold a few work sessions to review the facts of the project, and include members of the Miami County Council, North Miami Schools, Miami County Commissioners and Miami County Economic Development Authority.

“So we’re not sitting here blindly killing a project that has a significant financial impact on Miami County,” West said.

RES Director of Development Brad Lila later confirmed this ordinance would kill the project.

West asked each member of the commission if they understood the economic impact.

Only Ralph Duckwall knew the answer.

“We made this decision in a vacuum,” Duckwall said afterwards, “with only one side… the plan commission should have had several hearings and work sessions to get it right. If we give this more time, then everybody can understand it better.” 

Duckwall suggested the entire commission be given a presentation on how the project would work, how the money comes in and how the tax rates would be impacted, in order to get the full story.

According to Lila, here’s the economic impact if the project did happen: $109 million for landowners, more than $70 million in tax revenue and other payments for the county, between 15 and 30 full-time positions and 300 to 400 jobs during construction.

Before the vote took place, and when asked why the special committee didn’t know the answer, commission and special committee member Brad Fruth said that the committee attempted to contact RES for information and didn’t receive it.

Fruth later said members of the special committee did not make any phone calls or write any emails to RES, and said that Zoning Administrator/Planning Commissioner Tammy Gamble was the “funnel of communication.”

“I did not personally make contact,” Fruth said. “We operated all information flow through Tammy.”

According to Gamble, she never read any of the information sent to her, and just passed it along to the special committee as she wanted to remain neutral. She also said that she was under the impression that the special committee would be conducting their own research

Fruth said he couldn’t recall where any of his information came from, beyond other Indiana county ordinances, after being asked on three different occasions about his information sources.

“The vote was made after comments were made that clearly weren’t factual,” said Lila. He said he couldn’t find any emails or phone calls from the special committee, which includes Fruth, Jason Bowman and Jon Reibly.

In December, the commission created a special committee to review the 1,000 ft. setback from residences and 350 ft. setback from property lines in the county’s 2011 wind energy conversion ordinance and research possible adoptions. 

At the January Miami County Plan/Building Commission meeting, Fruth said the commission would accept any information from the public. The small group of people in attendance at the meeting were vocally against the project. 

In March, Fruth said the committee looked exclusively at ordinances from other Indiana counties.

All but one of the approximately 25 county ordinances they reviewed with similar setbacks were counties where there were zero wind turbines. The one county that did, Tipton, changed its ordinance to its present version after the first round of turbines were built – and no additional turbines have been built since.

At Wednesday evening’s meeting, West provided a spreadsheet of those counties.

Nine of the counties had ordinances that prevented turbines from being built. The 14 other ordinances had an average setback of about 1,000 ft. from residences and 695 ft. from property lines.

Fruth and Bowman said that their intent wasn’t to kill the project, but to protect citizens. 

The public was satisfied with the setback, as they understood what it meant.

Contrasting many public comment periods of meetings during the past five months, Wednesday evening’s public hearing lasted a matter of minutes.

Many thanked the special committee for creating an ordinance that would prevent wind turbines from being built.

Resident Stacy Mize said wind turbine projects are “taking away the Midwest and our lifestyle, we like to enjoy the quiet peacefulness.”  

West said although the citizens present at the meeting were against the project, he thinks “we’re doing a disservice to the other 35,000 people in county.”

In 2015 and 2016, Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory conducted a national survey of attitudes of wind power project neighbors.

The researchers collected data from 1,705 randomly drawn individuals living within 5 miles of all U.S. wind projects, with oversampling being done within 1 mile.

“The findings indicate an overall positive attitude toward the nearby turbines, including for those living even as close as ½ mile. Roughly 8% of the population had negative attitudes within 5 miles,” the report said.

While examining the correlating positive factors, neither demographic nor local wind project characteristics were significantly related; just perceptions and attitudes, according to the report.

The meeting wrapped up after 10 p.m. – Miami County Attorney Pat Roberts and Gamble split the task of reading the 18 pages of ordinance changes aloud, which alone took over an hour – with a swift vote of approval.

Fruth, Lynette Smith, Gregg Wilkinson, Richard Hendricks, Reibly and Bowman voted yes.

West, Duckwall and Corey Roser voted no.

The next vote could come before the Miami County Commissioners during their next regular meeting on Monday, April 16 at 9 a.m. 

Whenever the vote does happen, West and Commissioner Alan Hunt will be the only ones voting, as Commissioner Josh Francis recused himself last year from voting on anything wind-related due to his employment with RES.

If the vote is a split vote, then it becomes a stalemate – and following 90 days, the ordinance would pass as law, according to Roberts.