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Continued: In Scott County, questions swirl over wind power

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON , Star Tribune
  • Last update: October 30, 2012 - 4:21 PM

One of the landmarks on the riverbluff drive through Scott County along Hwy. 169 is the OK Corral, with its covered wagon hoist in mid-air along with an old-fashioned windmill whose blades are Swiss-cheesed with bullet holes.

If that image represents the past, however, the view to be seen up the hill on top of the bluffs may represent the future.

As sheep graze near the farmstead of Heidi Morlock and Hans Peterson, a much taller wind generator with many fewer blades spins rapidly, giving off a "WHID-di-di-di-did" whirling sound that you can hear from a long distance. At a moment when the windmill at the Corral is barely moving and the windmill beneath the tree line in a nearby farmyard is still, this one, thrust high into the sky, is working hard.

But that success is also a symbol of problems developing in Scott County -- and not only in farm country.

At a time of rising interest in green energy, the need to raise the blades well above the tree line so as to escape wind turbulence and keep them spinning starts to affect peoples' views from some distance away.

Joe Kerber lives in rural Jackson Township, across a small lake from a windmill proposed in another local resident's yard a few months ago. Kerber grew concerned about the view, and it wasn't just the notion of the one slender tower.

"When we purchased this property, it was all habitat," he said. "We had two lakes behind us and a bank of trees. This house's elevation is probably 80 feet above the lake. So when he puts up a turbine, it goes quite a ways up. And he might not be the only one who wants to do this. We don't want to have to see windmills all over the place."

Partly as a result of that dispute, Scott County is taking steps to rethink what the rules need to be in an era when small-scale wind turbines are proliferating -- and existing rules were written for much less obtrusive windmills.

The question of what to do about wind turbines -- implicitly, what is the balance between property rights and the concerns of neighbors -- was put to candidates for the Scott County Board of Commissioners during a candidate forum this month. It sparked some disagreement, but Joe Wagner, one of the board's two rural representatives, may have made the one incontestable point:

"This can turn into a real hot-button issue," he said. "We have to iron it out before we get 80 more requests."

Just days after that event, the Minnesota Court of Appeals issued a ruling that amounts to a warning to local government.

The court said that Orono wrongly denied a permit to set up a 20-foot-high wind turbine in a yard on Lake Minnetonka. The city said it didn't allow such things, but the court said it didn't disallow them either and wasn't taking steps against putting up basketball hoops and other sorts of things of similar height.

Lesson: Get ahead of this issue if it's going to be trouble.

And one lesson emerging in Scott County is to rethink the notion of who needs to be notified when a tower is proposed.

When the gentleman in Kerber's area approached Scott County about setting up a 120-foot-tall wind turbine in an 11-acre yard, 30 feet from a property line, it sounded as if the neighbors were fine with it.

"No one has objected," he wrote, "and most of them wonder why I have not started the installation."

Across the lake, however, Kerber reports, he only heard about the proposal on the day of the public hearing itself. Others around him were concerned as well -- when he raced down to appear and offer objections, he reported speaking for several -- but had conflicts that night, including someone whose daughter was trying out for the U.S. national hockey team and was not about to report to the county planning commission instead.

It all worked out well from Kerber's standpoint; the neighbor withdrew for the sake of neighborly good feeling. But Kerber still is taken aback by the whole concept in a residential area.

"I talked to him," said Kerber, president of Shakopee-based Kerber Tile, Marble and Stone, "and one of his comments was, he's an electrician who will never have an electricity bill again. Which is great for him, but even though I'm in tile and marble, I wouldn't put a rock pile in front of the house."

Never having an electricity bill again, however, combined with other attractions such as tax incentives and the ability to feed excess power back to the grid and get paid for it, are causing folks to think about the paybacks of wind power. One Scott planning commissioner warned colleagues last summer, according to the minutes of a meeting, that there could well be a "flood of turbines" in the area in the years to come.

Wind turbines can range widely in height from just a couple of stories tall in the Orono case to hundreds of feet. The northern end of Scott County has experience with behemoth mega-towers. The Shakopee tribe put one up, and its own website seems to exult in the sheer massiveness of the thing:

"At 386 feet from foundation to the tip of a blade fully extended vertically, the wind turbine is the equivalent of a 38-story tall building."

But that scale of wind power, designed to promote the tribe's self-sufficiency from its neighbors, has drawn some grumbling, commissioners said.

"People complain about the whooshing noise," said Barbara Johnson. "Even though the blades don't move that fast, they are noisy."

If tribal trust land lies beyond the reach of local government controls, however, the remainder of the county can be subject to more rules. Among the questions county staff are suggesting need to be weighed in the months to come:

• Where should they be allowed? Is there a minimum parcel size? Is it really more for remote farm country than for residential, even a rural residential area with large acreage lots?

• How about rural areas with larger lots but that are destined for future suburban subdivisions? These are costly things to set up -- are we going to later come back and ask to have them taken down?

• How about safety? Might they crash into a neighbor's yard? Do owners need to take steps so kids don't climb them? How far back do they need to be from lot lines? How about appearance: Color, finish, lighting?

All that remains to be worked out.

There was talk at the informal workshop of a 10-acre minimum, but someone pointed out that under that rule, a person with 40 acres could build four of them. You'd have a wind farm sprouting all of a sudden in what the neighbors might consider a quasi-residential area.

In an era of agitation over both sustainable energy and property rights, the county commissioner debate proved a forecast of the kinds of debates that are likely to ensue.

Said Jerry Kucera, who's running against Wagner:

"I'm concerned aesthetically to see an area peppered with windmills -- it could take your breath away. I'm concerned about property rights for those who want to use them. But I am also concerned about the rights of those who don't want to look at them."

David Peterson • 952-746-3285

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