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Gage County Planning Commission amends wind turbine regulations

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On Thursday evening, the Gage County Planning Commission heard several recommendations for additional requirements on wind developments to be added to the county zoning regulations. The county currently has a moratorium in place regarding wind energy permit applications, which extends through the end of the year.

About 21 people spoke for nearly 90 minutes, all in opposition to the proposed requirements as they are currently written, or opposed to wind farms in northern Gage County in general. No wind development supporters or wind energy companies gave testimony.

Current regulations require a one-mile setback for non-participating homes from wind turbines. Several people spoke in favor of extending the setback, with Pickrell resident Christine Boone suggesting that the measurement be taken from the property line.

“We feel this change is really essential in order for us to treat all property owners fairly and equally under our laws and regulations in Gage County,” Boone said. “As it exists now, if a resident exists on a non-participating property, then there’s a setback of one mile to a turbine. But those who purchase property, and then desire to build a residence on that property, have no guarantee on the setback for the wind turbine, depending upon where it is located and where they wish to build their residence.”

“We have people come and say ‘put them in southern Gage County, put them in Eastern Gage County or wherever, because there’s less people down there,’” Planning Commission member Wade Thornburg noted while the planning commission discussed whether to change the requirements. “That is referencing the residents, and the property line is everywhere. You can own five acres anywhere.”

The motion to amend the one-mile setback to the property line failed in a 1-6 vote, with Planning Commission member Terry Acton voting in favor.

Ross Trauernicht said he was speaking on behalf of the Village Board of Pickrell in asking for a three-mile setback from corporate lines.

“One mile limits our growth,” Trauernicht said. “After one mile, our growth is done, so we have nowhere to go. We have a couple of houses that want to be built in Pickrell. They are on hold right now, waiting to see what the deal is.”

Acton asked for a motion to amend the regulations from a one-mile setback to two miles on a platted subdivision, village or town. The motion failed in a 3-4 vote.

“Keep in mind that if you have a specific project that comes in, you still have that opportunity to set additional conditions when that application comes in,” Lisa Wiegand, Gage County’s Zoning Administrator, said.

The Planning Commission unanimously voted to ban any wind turbine shadow flicker on public school property.

A similar regulation was also unanimously approved for churches, with a one-mile setback and no shadow flicker from wind turbines.

Amanda Spracklen-Hogan, Assistant Gage County Attorney, proposed the definition of a church as “a building that houses a religious organization or congregation, meets at a particular location with constitutions, bylaws, and has filed a 501c3.”

Jamie Pospichal of Cortland asked the Planning Commission to adopt the wind noise restrictions recommended by the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department.

"We all know that earlier this year, the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners made adjustments to their noise regulations,” Pospichal said. “I'm going to emphasize this was against the advice of the health department. This vote was against available research, and it was against the vote of experts. I realize that you've been told that since the one-mile setback was established, a change to noise regulations isn't needed. I would question if that advice is based on a true understanding of how noise travels."

The Planning Commission approved adopting Lancaster County’s wind noise standard in a 6-1 vote. Their standards are currently 40-decibels during the daytime, and 37-decibels at night.

Three people spoke in favor of protecting the viewshed of Homestead National Historical Park.

“Homestead is meant to preserve and be a place that everyone can see what it must have been like to cross a vast and open prairie in the late 1800s,” Don Ferneding of Beatrice said. “Today, that could be destroyed by tens and possibly hundreds of 500-foot tall wind turbines…I am here to ask for your continued protection of the viewshed of Homestead National Historical Park, and help protect the wildlife and the view itself for today’s generation, and for generations to come.”

A motion was made to restrict the height of all wind turbines to 400-feet maximum, to be measured from the base of the turbine to the top of the blade. The motion failed in a 1-6 vote.

“It maybe limits stuff too much,” Planning Commission member Derrick Damrow said. “We’ve got to keep in mind, this is a whole county requirement, and there may be projects down the road that, for efficiency sake and so forth, that towers greater than that are more valuable. It might reduce densities, too. As your towers get higher and generate more capacity, they may spread them out farther so you don’t have the density problem of towers everywhere. I just don’t know that we want to be that restrictive on a county basis. Certainly, we can be through the permit process.”

The Planning Commission unanimously approved adding a wind farm decommissioning plan that details costs and requires developers to a bond guaranteeing removal of decommissioned equipment and restoration of an area. They also unanimously approved subjecting wind developers to fines for violating road maintenance agreements, and requiring them to escrow funds to help pay for studies, at rates they left open to be determined by the Gage County Board of Supervisors.

The Planning Commission voted to review the requirements with the additions they made at their next meeting on Tuesday, August 10. The requirements would then likely go to the Gage County Board of Supervisors for final approval.

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