BP Wind Energy cleared the first hurdle to build a wind farm in southern Pratt County when the planning board made an initial recommendation that the Pratt County Commission approve a special use application. The action does not allow BP to begin construction; instead, if approved by the Commission, it gives the company up to three years to secure a power purchase agreement and apply for a second hearing. The application for the hearing must be accompanied by evidence of compliance with 18 additional items.
The next step, however, is a consideration of the permit by commissioners at 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 7 at the courthouse.
Zoning Administrator Tim Branscom will give a report, followed by opportunities for the applicant (BP) and the public to present new information. Information presented at Monday's nearly five-hour public hearing has been entered into the minutes and commissioners are not obligated to hear it again, Branscom noted. All three commissioners were present at the hearing.
Commissioners can approve the recommendation, reject it, or send it back to the planning board.
BP proposes to build a $220 million commercial wind energy farm in an area about two miles south of Pratt and extending east towards Cairo that encompasses about 20,000 acres. Depending on the type of turbine used, between 65 and 94 towers will be erected.
About 250 temporary construction jobs and up to 15 permanent jobs will be created, according to BP representative Karl Pierce.
BP has invested $3.5 million in the project, Pierce said, which includes $1.6 million for 155 leases. Estimated royalties that total $500,000 will be paid to participating landowners annually.
Nearly a dozen people spoke at Monday's hearing. Margene Martin, a former Pratt County resident and current landowner, now living in Canon City, Colo., was the only speaker supporting the Ninnescah Wind Energy project.
She noted that in addition to the 932 acres she owns in the proposed project area, she also has holdings in Stevens County, where the City of Hugoton sought to increase its tax base with a wind farm.
"Can you imagine one county begging for a wind farm and another county opposing it?" she questioned, as she reprimanded the planning board for "listening to a vocal minority instead of surveying a silent majority."
"Pratt has an opportunity to be forward-thinking, to generate jobs during construction and recurring maintenance, and permanent good-paying jobs," Martin said. "I ask you to join with me and support a commercial wind energy project for the benefit of all Pratt County residents."
Other speakers were less positive.
"We chose not to lease our land," said Jan Parsons, who lives two miles north of the proposed energy project. She referred to research indicating property values at least 25 percent lower for homes close to wind projects, possible adverse health effects and prolonged exposure to wind turbine noise that affects health.
Participating property owners have rights that are spelled out in their leases; she requested that non-participating owners be protected by 1-mile setbacks from turbines, instead of the 2,500 feet specified in the application.
Committee member Ed Petrowsky made a motion following the hearing, to go back to setbacks originally discussed: one mile from all residences and one-half mile from property lines. When Branscom said the board could not change setbacks for the current application, he withdrew his motion, "for now."
Berry Bortz argued that BP's application was incomplete, because maps did not show all structures, which by definition includes fences, windmills and center pivot irrigation systems, on the Bortz farm and the Northern Natural Gas underground storage area was "short about 10,000 acres" on the map.
Laurie Yasui, who lives in the area, and is an employee of Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, objected to a wind farm being planned for what is the migratory route of 90 percent of whooping cranes. A low number of verified sightings should not be considered as lack of use by whooping cranes, which normally fly at an elevation of 1,000 feet, but come down lower when weather is bad or for feeding. She said a 2012 count indicated a whooping crane population of 245.
Bob Kaplan, a Wichita attorney who said he was standing in for Steve Stark, who represents Greg Bacon and "many of these folks who are in opposition" to the wind farm, objected to an application that encompasses 21,000 acres with no indication of where towers will be located.
"I've been doing this for 56 years and I've never had a zoning application presented where I could not depict the location of my project," he said.
He also urged the planning committee to verify that proper notice was given to all landowners, because "failure of notice renders the entire procedure void."
Admitting that he knows nothing about wind power, he said, "it is wholly incorrect to suggest (as BP indicates) that wind turbines do not have a negative impact on properties."
Much of his work has been with high voltage transmission lines, which he said result in a 25 to 40 percent diminishment of property values, and that the impact on residential properties is substantially greater than to agricultural.
While wind development is not the same has high voltage transmission lines, he suggested the two were "analogous."
Planning board member Fred Newby pushed for resolution.
"We've had hearings and hearings and hearings and discussions and discussions," he said. "I would like to lay this thing to rest. I think it needs to be laid to rest tonight."
Rick Shriver made the motion to forward the application to the county governing body and Ted Loomis provided the second. The motion passed 6-1, with Petrowsky voting "nay." At the beginning of the meeting, Darren Hodgkinson and Mark Fincham disqualified themselves from the proceedings, because they own property in the area.
If commissioners approve the special use permit, BP must provide independent third-party surveys or university studies showing the potential impact on agricultural and commercial businesses, agricultural, residential and business property values, risks to groundwater and water resources, capacity of roads, bridges and culverts over which equipment will travel, and identify any endangered, threatened or target-list species within the project area.