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Wind farm expansion generates controversy

Staff writer

The county commission office filled Monday with conservationists and lawyers from all over the state — El Dorado, Topeka, neighboring counties — to protest the approval of a conditional use permit (CUP) that would allow Windbourne Energy to expand its wind farm operation south of US-50.

The land in question is included in Governor Sam Brownback’s “Tallgrass Heartland” preserve, designated in 2011. Representatives from the Tallgrass Ranchers and the Nature Conservancy appealed to county commissioners to hold off on approving the expansion.

The expansion was approved 2-1 by commissioners, with Chairman Roger Fleming dissenting.

The hour-long discussion featured nine speakers, eight of whom spoke against approval. Among the dissenters, some were lawyers, some were from the region, but only one, Bob Gayle, was from Marion County.

Savage’s point to the commission was that this was a case of local landowners having their rights trampled by out-of-area parties. He also reminded the commission that there have been several public hearings prior to Monday at which conservationists could have expressed concern.

“None of these folks cared to show up for those hearings and present at that time,” he said.

Bob Gayle of Florence had presented at hearings before, though, and he was there again to encourage preservation, or at least taking more time to figure out an equitable solution.

Most of the dissenting opinions emphasized a need to take time to figure out a mutually acceptable solution.

“That’s what we’ve heard at these hearings is we need more time to study it,” Savage said. “It’s delay for delay’s sake, study for the sake of obfuscation.

“There’s a time to stop studying and start doing.”

Commissioner Dan Holub was most vocal of the commissioners after all the initial appeals were heard.

He asked whether the same group would appeal if the landowners were turning pasture into a cornfield, or drilling oil wells, to which Bruce Waugh, lawyer and cofounder of Tallgrass Ranchers, replied “no.”

“Why would wind energy be treated differently?” Holub asked.

Tallgrass Ranchers cofounder Scott Ritchie cited the size of wind turbines as an invasion of the landscape.

“We’re not talking about the landscape, we’re talking about killing the grass that can’t be put back again,” Holub said.

Holub went on to say he thought landowners’ rights were being trampled, and that appeals could have been heard at previous hearings.

“We live in a republic, and we had a group, nonelected, that advised one of our elected officials on this issue, where to draw these lines, and he chose not to check with Marion County,” Holub said. “He just ignored us, said, ‘well you can have your government, but it doesn’t mean anything to Topeka,’ and I absolutely totally resent that crap, we’ve been treated like that for years. And this is just another one where some group finds an ear in Topeka that comes and dictates the local government.”

Waugh warned Holub of a potential lawsuit similar to one his group won in Waubaunsee County. Gayle urged Holub to be cautious, saying he has more than just the county to consider.

Holub disagreed.

“Who’s going to speak for the landowners here? I think county commission is,” he said. “This is what they saw as a fit use for their land when they signed those leases. The zoning board took a lot of time, we didn’t just go out there and start throwing stuff around. We can debate this to death. And if we lose in court, we’ll get a different lawyer and try again. There comes a time to draw the line.”

Savage said he’d be open to civil discussion with Tallgrass Ranchers and other groups if the expansion was approved. Chairman Roger Fleming voted against the approval, he said, as a message that the groups need to get together and have serious discussion.

“We can have a conversation, and it will be a civil conversation,” Savage said. “The CUP does not preclude that conversation, it simply keeps things moving.”

Last modified Nov. 12, 2014

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