COLUMBIA CITY — Whitley County’s most volatile hot-button issue for the past year or more has been wind energy — to embrace the possible arrival of 400-foot-high wind turbines or tell the companies who market the wind harnessers “no thank you, we don’t want them.”
While both sides of this heated debate have been represented through the myriad public hearings and committee meetings, it appears the squeakiest wheel in the debate is about to be lubricated more thoroughly than a wind turbine’s gearbox.
“We thought the project was nothing more than, say, building a silo, building a hog house — a reasonable permit,” said longtime Whitley County farmer Steve Sickafoose. “Boy were we wrong.”
Sickafoose and about 150 others in the county, signed lease agreements to allow high towers to be placed on their land with the purpose of measuring wind. It was hoped, at that time, that the company investigating the possibility of a wind farm, or a configuration of multiple windmills, would deem the area viable to proceed with a project.
According to Sickafoose, and fellow farmers Doug Reiff and Walter Trier, that was before opponents to the installation of windmills in the county began to cry “foul.”
Planners, led by the Whitley County Plan Commission and the Columbia City/Whitley County Joint Planning and Building Department, began seeing the need to regulate potential wind farms. An ordinance was drafted.
The commission began poring over the details of the ordinance, which Planning & Building Executive Director Dave Sewell said was drafted to protect the county and its citizens.
Meanwhile, throngs of those very citizens swarmed plan commission meetings and demanded what men like Sickafoose claim are impossible restrictions which he says will ultimately ensure Whitley County will never host a single wind turbine.
Final coffin nail? — according to Sickafoose, Reiff and Trier it’s a wind turbine setback of 1,500 feet from the property line of anyone who is not participating in the project.
While at least one company, St. Louis-based Wind Capital Group, is seeking to build a wind farm in Whitley County, Sickafoose said the new and expanded set back will cause the potential developers to pack up and look elsewhere.
“We’re closer than we’ve ever been (to having an ordinance), “Sewell said.
“You cannot say for sure that it will be, but it (the 1,500-foot setback) would appear to be a deal breaker.
“To my knowledge, it is a greater setback than any other ordinance in the state,” Sewell said.
The three county residents say they are disenchanted with the Whitley County government and some members of its citizenry. They also claim that 60 percent of county residents who have expressed opposition to wind turbines don’t even live in the area of the county where windmills would be erected.
“I’m not too proud of the county right now,” said Sickafoose.
The three men also say harnessing the wind for energy is nothing new, as evidenced by the century-old structures that still stand in many parts of the country, hearkening back to a day when water was sucked from the ground via pumps powered by spinning windmill blades.
“We are not pioneers here,” Sickafoose said.