Gage County Planning and Zoning will once again take up the issue of commercial wind energy in Gage County when the commission meets this week for the first time since COVID-19 halted planning business earlier this spring.
The commission has a meeting scheduled for Thursday, where it will discuss a proposed amendment to the wind regulations.
The topic of amending the regulations has been a controversial topic, and also one that’s dragged on since a proposal to change them was made nearly 1 ½ years ago.
Meetings where wind energy is to be discussed, such as Thursday’s, regularly draw 100 or more people, which was a driving force in not holding meetings for the last four months to encourage social distancing.
Planning and Zoning administrator Lisa Wiegand said Thursday’s meeting will be held at the Hevelone Center at Beatrice High School, with safety measures in place.
“We’re going to practice the best social distancing we can,” she said. “It’s up to the individuals if they want to wear masks for their own protection. It will not be mandatory. However, we will social distance and if we meet a capacity that’s unsafe we will probably close the room and then allow so many others to come in.”
Wiegand added capacity will max out at around 200-250 people.
The meeting is scheduled to begin at 5:30 p.m., and a public hearing on the proposed amendment to change the regulations will begin at 6:30 p.m.
While the changes would apply to all future commercial turbines, the push for change has been largely driven by a proposal from NextEra Energy Resources to build a 50-turbine wind farm in northern Gage County, a roughly $225 million investment in the area.
Billy Wilkins, project manager with NextEra, attended Wednesday’s County Board of Supervisors meeting and is planning to attend the public hearing on Thursday. He said that while wind turbines have been a controversial topic, only a small percentage of the population wants more regulation.
“I’ve engaged in several forms of outreach, including reaching out to village boards and individual residents to try to gain a better understanding of the perception of wind energy and our project, Gage Wind,” he said. “We’ve learned that Gage Wind is controversial, but perhaps the controversy is representative of a small sample size of the population.
“In April we contracted an independent third party to conduct a survey of registered voters and discovered that 67% of respondents felt it’s important to the state and local governments to support the development of wind energy to meet Nebraska’s electricity needs.”
The amendment to the regulations was presented by Cortland-area resident Larry Allder.
Prairie Wind Watchers, the group spearheading the requested amendments, is focusing on specific changes it would like to see made by the county.
A primary concern is increasing current setback requirements that stipulate turbines must be 3/8 miles from residences. The group is asking that figure to be increased to one mile.
The group is also asking officials to make changes to how decibel levels are calculated.
Wording in the current regulations allows wind energy companies to conduct their own testing, which some think gives them an unfair advantage.
The process was stalled last year while officials debated how to best notify property owners about the proposal. It was further delayed when planning and zoning business was called off in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
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