Whitley County’s proposed wind power ordinance isn’t dead, but it has fallen into a coma.
And the responsibility for inducing the proposal’s deep sleep falls on a determined citizenry, articulate lawyers and an error in judgment by a county plan commissioner.
More than 200 people crowded the sweltering lower level meeting room in the Whitley County Government Center, some having to listen to the proceedings out in the hall, as eight members of the nine-member board listened to public input on the controversial Whitley County Wind Ordinance.
After two hours and 28 minutes, the board agreed unanimously to start all over in a process that had taken months to get to Wednesday night’s climatic impasse.
While residents had numerous issues with the ordinance that is supposed to stop wind power generating companies from running amok in the county, it was one commissioner’s perceived conflict of interest that put the proposed legislation into a snoring slumber.
Commission President Dave Schilling admitted at the Oct. 20 meeting that he had signed a lease agreement with Wind Capital Group, a St. Louis-based company that designs power-generating windmills.
Eyebrows were raised about Schilling’s agreement at that meeting and those questions and concerns came to a head Wednesday night.
On the advice of counsel, the board agreed to scrap all the progress that had been made thus far.
“I had no clue that Mr. Schilling had any lease agreement with Wind Capital,” said Commissioner Kim Wheeler. “I said before I only want to do this one time and do it right and it isn’t right.”
After more than two hours of heated comments by angry residents who either don’t want windmills in their communities at all, or want the setbacks from dwellings or property lines lengthened, and after lengthy presentations by two Fort Wayne-based lawyers representing some of those citizens, the floor was closed to public comments.
It was shortly after that Commissioner Mike Schrader broke a two-hour-plus silence.
“I’ve been quiet all this time and now I’m going to say something,” Schrader said.
“I think we owe it to the people of the county to look at this (the ordinance and Schilling’s alleged conflict of interest). I think if we do not, we’re going to always have hard feelings.”
The comments by Wheeler and Schrader received resounding applause although the tone from the majority of those in the crowd throughout the evening toward the board had ranged from cold and cynical to, at times, obnoxious.
The public was allowed a portion of the meeting in which to express concerns about the ordinance.
Despite requests from attorney Dawn Boyd and Commission Vice President Bill Auer that comments be confined to the ordinance only, detractors often strayed from the script, with one man even telling a story about illicit sex being had on Steel Dynamics property near his house.
Auer also asked the attendees to avoid reiterating any points that had been made in last month’s meetings. This request also went largely unheeded.
After more than two hours of testimony, some in favor of the ordinance with the majority of speakers opposed, the board asked repeatedly if anyone else would like to speak.
The panel then voted to close the public speaking portion of the meeting, with Boyd reminding everyone that the remainder of the meeting would belong to the commission and that further public comments would not be allowed.
This announcement did nothing to stop a series of catcalls and heckles from several audience members when various commissioners began discussion.
Commissioner Brandon Forrester took the podium and answered those who charged the panel with not doing enough research on the effects of wind farms on the surrounding citizenry.
“I know you all think you know what we have done,” Forrester said. “Trust me, you don’t.”
Aside from the conflict of interest, which proved to be the knockout blow to the ordinance, the most pressing concern for county residents has been the proposed setbacks, or minimum distances that a 400-plus-foot windmill tower can be erected from a neighboring dwelling and/or property line.
The proposed ordinance called for a minimum distance from the neighboring property line to 1.1 times the height of the windmill at its highest point. The distance from that windmill to any neighboring dwelling was to be 1,200 feet, which planners reduced from the original length of 1,500 feet.
Opponents called for more substantial setbacks of 2,500 feet.
“It seems like you’re going in the wrong direction, in my clients’ belief,” said Patrick R. Hess, a Fort-Wayne-based attorney representing a 57-member citizen group called Whitley County Concerned Citizens, Inc.
“My clients are absolutely opposed to this ordinance.”
Hess, along with Thomas M. Niezer who represented another group of county landowners, were the first speakers to take the podium on behalf of the ordinance remonstrators. Both called for the commission to issue a six-month moratorium on moving ahead with the ordinance.
“We’re here this evening to remonstrate against your proposed ordinance,” said Niezer, making Schilling’s lease agreement his first order of business.
“The date he signed (the lease agreement), that’s the date we believe his conflict began. The process is tainted and it must be started over.”
After the public portion of the meeting was concluded, Boyd addressed the board and announced that there were two dates for Schilling signatures on lease agreements.
The earliest date was June 23 with the other being July 1. “This (the ordinance) is something that’s been discussed since March,” Boyd said.
One of the champions of the ordinance and the contributor of the lion’s share of manhours on the document reflected this morning on being back at Square One.
“We’ll live for another day,” said Dave Sewell, Whitley County’s Executive Director of Planning and Building.
“I will consult with the County Commissioners, probably in their next meeting and see how they want to proceed. Ultimately, if we do do an ordinance, they’re going to be involved so I will seek their advice.”
The detractors of the ordinance took issue with the commission on another perception.
The ordinance, dubbed the Whitley County Wind Ordinance, is designed to regulate companies such as Wind Capital Group should those firms decide to build wind farms in the county.
Wind Capital Group is currently testing the wind in the county, a process that some say could take at least 18 months.
After the assessment period, the company would decide whether or not winds in the county are sufficient for the company to invest what some say could be as much as $250 million.
Before the meeting started, John Doster of Wind Capital Group said he is used to resistance from the citizenry when contemplating a new site.
“We run into this from time to time but in this situation, there’s been a lot of misinformation that has fed fears, this has been more than typical,” Doster said.
Following the decision to start the process over by the commission, Doster could not be reached for comment.