INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Two Indiana House bills that would have regulated wind energy were held up in committee recently, while a proposed wind development project is stirring residents in Cass and Miami counties, similar to projects in east-central Indiana that have previously divided neighbors into pro- and anti-wind farm camps.
Rep. Tom Saunders (R-Lewisville), whose district covers Wayne, Rush and Henry counties, said wind farms have been a big issue there for a couple years. He authored House Bill 1225 that called for county officials who have signed a contract with a wind energy developer – such as a lease or easement agreement – to abstain from voting on matters involving wind turbines.
“I’m not accusing officials, but the perception is there is a conflict of interest,” he said. “It’s been a very divisive issue.”
Wind energy advocates argued there are enough conflict of interest laws that are applicable, but Saunders said updates are still needed. Not giving up, he hopes to amend language in a bill that will come out of the Indiana Senate.
Rep. David Ober (R-Albion) authored H.B. 1338, which would have made it a criminal offense for public servants to not disclose a financial interest in a wind farm development. Other requirements, such as statewide setbacks, were dropped from the bill.
Lynn Studebaker, who owns land in Fulton and Cass counties and testified at the bill’s hearing last month, said the committee may not have realized how deep the conflict of interest issue goes.
“Local officials are not held to the same standards,” said Studebaker, who has used the Public Information Act to view multiple public documents and believes many conflicts of interest have gone unreported.
Verlin Custer, who was to have six turbines on his Rush County farm, said his county has suffered from scare tactics and a lack of progressive leadership. The Apex Clean Energy wind project has stalled due to new zoning requirements. However, he said he and other landowners are still receiving payments from Apex, per lease agreements.
“We just turned down more than a $300 million investment in the county. They don’t realize the economic impact,” Custer said, referring to Randolph, Benton, White and other counties with wind development projects that are pouring public money into their coffers that can be used for schools and roads.
H.B. 1225 also would have required wind energy companies to file a notice in the recorder’s office and to notify property owners within 2 miles of proposed wind energy projects.
“The other issue is that the wind companies don’t want people to know about the wind farm ahead of time. By that time it’s too late to intervene. When your property is affected by others’ property rights, it’s not right. I’m not anti-wind or anti-green energy. It’s about being a good neighbor,” Saunders explained, saying he’s tired of being labeled “anti-wind.”
As wind farms edge closer to the city limits of Indianapolis, with larger populations, they become a more difficult issue, he said. Rush and Henry counties are east of Indianapolis, with a denser population than Benton County with its large wind farms.
“This is a property rights issue, and it involves a lot of farmers who are the property owners. It is a complex issue that is unlike any other,” said Studebaker, who is primarily concerned about safety.
Custer agreed the issue is property rights. “The only valid argument opponents have is that they don’t want to look at wind turbines in their neighborhood. There are lots of things on my neighbors’ property that I don’t like to look at, but I have no right to tell them what to do. Farmers were here first, and if you move into a rural area, you need to expect certain things.
“It’s like moving by a fire station and complaining about the sirens,” he said.
Setbacks – the distance between wind turbines and non-participating neighbors’ property – is another bone of contention. H.B. 1338, in its original form, also would have required commercial wind turbines to be at least a half-mile from airports, schools and hospitals and 2,200 feet from residences.
Custer would support consistent state setbacks at 1,000 feet from the property line, believing that to be adequate. In Rush County, the Board of Zoning Appeals increased setbacks to 2,300 feet from the neighboring property line, virtually eliminating the ability to build any turbines.
In some counties like Cass, the ordinance requires a 1,000-foot setback from residences, including those of neighbors. This would preclude any future building within that zone. Opponents to wind farms say that is unfair to neighbors and probably unsafe to those with property in the “unsafe zone.”
Indiana Rep. Heath VanNatter (R-Kokomo), who represents part of Cass County, said at a committee hearing he intended to propose an amendment that would require setbacks to be measured to property lines.
A lawsuit was filed in Cass County Circuit Court in January by three landowners over the issue of setbacks. Opponents of wind farms in Henry County also filed suit against county officials and Big Blue River Wind Farm last year.
Asked whether state legislators were either favorable or unfavorable toward wind energy issues, Saunders said, “If it doesn’t affect them, they don’t care, unfortunately.”
Studebaker said many grassroots group, like Cass County Property Rights, don’t have lobbyists – or lawyers, unless they hire them. “If legislators care about Hoosiers, why don’t they care about those of us spending thousands of dollars and hours of time away from our families?” she said.
Farm World attempted to contact Ober, but as of press time, he did not return phone calls.