County board opts not to vote on wind farm, will have further talks in March

Published 8:11 pm Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The Freeborn County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday opted not to vote on an agreement for the planned construction of the Freeborn Wind Farm in the southeast part of the county.

The motion to approve the agreement was not seconded after Commissioner Glen Mathiason motioned to approve it.

Following his motion, commissioners Mike Lee and Dan Belshan did not respond to Chairman Chris Shoff when he asked if there was a second.

Jim Nelson was absent from the meeting.

The board plans to discuss the agreement during a March 12 workshop.

The Freeborn Wind Farm, expected to be in London, Shell Rock, Hayward and Oakland townships, includes 42 wind turbines in Minnesota and 58 in Iowa.

After the agreement was not voted on, Mathiason said he was “disappointed,” after staff members spent hours developing the agreement.

He said the project is for the betterment of Freeborn County.

In not seconding the motion, Lee and Belshan expressed concern over right-of-way space developer Invenergy would be given under the agreement.

“The county was giving a permit to go in the right-of-way,” Belshan said. “They’re not a utility. The utility has a right do that.”

Lee said he wanted the full board to vote on the agreement because of its importance.

Invenergy LLC is the Chicago-based large-scale energy developer tasked with developing, designing and permitting the project. Xcel Energy will then purchase the ownership interest in Freeborn Wind following permitting and prior to construction, and will construct, own and operate the project.

After the motion failed, Dorenne Hanson of the Association of Freeborn County Landowners said she felt “great” that the board did not vote on the measure.

In a public forum prior to the vote, Hanson called for the utility permit of the agreement to be taken out and said Freeborn Wind appeared to be using public right-of-way land where it could not get landowners to sign agreements.

“I ask you to go through this and make some changes,” she said during the meeting.

After the meeting, she said there were many problems in the agreement.

Hanson said she still would not approve of the agreement if those concerns were alleviated because Invenergy is aware it cannot meet state noise standards.

Invenergy Senior Manager for Project Development Dan Litchfield said the organization can meet noise standards and to measure noise, the source of noise should be 10 decibels higher than the background noise level. He said initial permitting language did not accurately capture that.

He said there have been landowners who signed agreements while others have not.

“In some cases where people haven’t, we’re working within the public right-of-way as required by law, and that’s our plan for the project,” he said.

Supporter John Forman said during the public forum the county has already lost 50 wind turbines to Iowa, resulting in the loss of potential property tax base.

“We need the tax base,” he said. “If the county has the ability to help this along, they should do it.”

Worth County resident Julie Kunz said she would like it if the turbines were not in her county.

‘We’d love to give them away,” she said.

 

Freeborn County board votes four days after state action

Board inaction came four days after the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission rejected the Association of Freeborn County Landowners motion for reconsideration of the route permit for the power line.

Litchfield said the commission deliberated on two wordings of the wind farm’s proposed noise conditions. He said one was “a streamlined version that we had proposed in September and believe was discussed and agreed upon by the commission at their Sept. 20 hearing when they verbally approved the project.”

“We had filed a motion for clarification to use this wording, as the documents issued by the commission in December — the order and site permit — are internally inconsistent,” he said.

Litchfield noted a version supplied by the Department of Commerce “corrects the internal discrepancy between the written order and the site permit but in (a) slightly different way.”

He said the main difference between the two is the Department of Commerce form requiring the project to pay for an independent consultant for operational noise monitoring.

“While this was not clearly a topic of discussion on Sept. 18 and part and parcel of the decision, we are agreeable to this condition,” Litchfield said.

Association of Freeborn County Landowners lawyer Carol Overland said her organization has 14 days to send language on what they think noise conditions should be with an explanation.

The Public Utilities Commission is expected to set a future meeting date to address the issue and motions for reconsideration.

In the motion, the association requested the wind docket be remanded to the administrative law judge.

The association argued that in emails Sept. 14 and Sept. 17 between John Wachtler of the Minnesota Department of Commerce and Frank Kohlasch of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency “reworked and rewrote conditions to the permit to allow this project to move forward knowing it could not comply with the state’s noise standard.”

“For Freeborn to be meeting privately with agency staff, rearguing their case to these regulators, inserting conditions with no vetting, inserting conditions allowing noise exceedances after admission that it could not comply with noise rules, all topped off with an orchestrated presentation to the commission and the commission’s blithe acceptance of this behavior and terms that are not supported by the record, how is this anything but blatant ex parte contact and improper conduct on the part of the commission,” the association said in a 65-page court document.

Kohlasch said he disagreed with the Association of Freeborn County Landowners. He noted the two state agencies sought to understand how the Commerce Department would respond to the administrative law judge’s recommendations and craft a permit condition to ensure the wind farm’s conditions comply with the language.

He said the administrative law judge interpreted the noise standard differently than the Pollution Control Agency.

According to Freeborn County Landowners, “staff should be disciplined for these ethical violations and the hearing reopened immediately to address these issues.”

“A look at the process and commission treatment of Freeborn Wind, there are known examples of giving preferential treatment to an interested entity,” the group said. “The commission has lost independence and impartiality of action. The decision has been made, for all intents and purposes, outside official channels, in private between Freeborn Wind, commerce and MPCA, arguably and generously assuming (the) commission knew nothing about these discussions and agreement. The process failure absolutely adversely affects the confidence of the public in the integrity of the commission.”

About Sam Wilmes

Sam Wilmes covers crime, courts and government for the Albert Lea Tribune.

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