The public divide over wind farms starts with the term itself

The public divide over wind farms starts with the term itself.

Atchison County in the northwest corner of Missouri is home to what, thus far, is the largest wind-power project in the state. A landowner and a business leader see the wind turbines as bright, white, spinning beacons of hope for a sparsely populated area struggling with economic development.

In DeKalb County, less than 100 miles to the southeast, there are those who reject the term "wind farm." The turbines that stand as tall as 500 feet, to them, are really industrial towers.

The stark differences of opinion about wind-energy projects in northwest Missouri emerged at the very start of the projects. Some residents praise wind farms for their economic benefits, the taxes they pay and their generation of what they see as clean, renewable energy. Others, however, say the turbines are unsightly health hazards that are hard on people, wildlife and property values.

Gauging the impact of wind farms on these two Missouri counties is difficult, but it's a good way to at least begin to assess how a plan to develop a wind farm spanning 20,000 acres or more near Harrisburg might play out. E.ON Climate & Renewables has approached dozens of landowners in northwestern Boone County about erecting wind turbines on their properties. Some residents are pleased by the prospect of profit. Others, though, worry that a wind farm at that scale would ruin their rural lifestyles, the Columbia Missourian reported.

People on both sides are scrambling to gather as many facts as they can. Meanwhile, the Boone County Planning & Zoning Commission is just beginning to grapple with how wind farms and turbines might be regulated by a zoning code that currently doesn't address them.

Monica Bailey has a small model wind turbine sitting on her desk at work.

Bailey, executive director of Atchison County Development Corp., has spent years working to bring opportunity to her corner of the state. To her, wind farms are a "breath of life" in a county that is home to fewer than 5,500 people.

"We don't have the capacity for a huge factory," Bailey said. "So these farms provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Bailey said the main complaints she's heard from her Atchison County neighbors is that the wind turbines are ugly and change the landscape.

"The skyline isn't as pretty anymore," she conceded. "But I think people are willing to put up with it because of the benefits."

The Rock Creek Wind Farm, which consists of 150 turbines scattered across 30,000 acres and about 100 properties, brings in around $1.5 million in tax revenue to Atchison County every year. Two other wind farms are also paying property taxes, according to the Atchison County Development Corp. The money goes to the county and to school, fire and ambulance districts.

"We don't get the chance for that kind of revenue anywhere else," Bailey said.

Rock Creek, owned by Enel Green Power North America, began operating in November 2017 and generates 300 megawatts of power.

The Atchison County wind farms sell their energy to publicly owned utilities such as Kansas City Power & Light. Ameren, another public utility, plans to buy the next wind farm being developed in Atchison County. Under current state law, Ameren would pay property taxes to the state instead of the county. The state distributes revenue based on the location of the utility's power lines rather than where the turbines are.

"If that were to happen, the conversation in Atchison will change," Bailey said. "Most people only like the farms because of the money they bring in," Bailey said. "We should be able to tax them here."

The tax issue drove state Rep. Allen Andrews, R-Grant City, to file House Bill 220, which would require wind energy projects owned by public utilities to be assessed locally, keeping the revenue in the counties where the turbines stand. Andrews' district includes Atchison County. The bill passed in the General Assembly during the last week of the session and will become law if Gov. Mike Parson signs it.

While there are currently no publicly owned wind turbines, the bill is a proactive attempt to ensure local entities continue to collect taxes from wind farms. Andrews said it's "a big thing for rural Missouri."

Rep. J. Eggleston, R-Maysville, also supported the bill. He said even the privately owned wind farms in DeKalb County, where he lives, could someday become public utilities, "and we definitely want that all of the property taxes associated with this property should stay in the county where the property resides."

Rep. Tracy McCreery, D-St. Louis, praised Andrews for looking ahead.

"Right now, there are no publicly held wind farms, but eventually there are going to be, so I think what I admire about this ... is we see a problem coming down the road, and we're trying to get in front of it."

Tarkio residents tend to know everyone and everything that's going on in the town of about 1,600 people.

Prom night at Tarkio High School is preceded by a "promenade." Juniors and seniors walk out in pairs in front of a gym packed with family, friends and neighbors. In the basement of St. John's Lutheran Church in nearby Westboro, women discuss the dresses the next day, before Bible study and a pot of coffee.

Tarkio and Westboro are decidedly agricultural communities. These days, however, many of the farms in the area are harvesting wind along with corn and soybeans.

Steve Klute said wind is just a different sort of crop.

Growing up outside Tarkio, Klute always knew he wanted to be a farmer. His farm has been in his family since 1920 and spans 1,750 acres. Klute, his father and his eldest son all work the land.

The Klute farm is home to nine wind turbines and a meteorological tower.

"It's changed everything around here for the better," Klute said of the wind power industry.

Klute also sits on the Tarkio R-1 School Board, which used the new revenue from wind farms to give teachers a raise. He said living close to the turbines is like "living near a highway or railroad." He doesn't mind.

"I sometimes think people are looking for something to complain about."

Atchison County is destined to become home to more turbines. It anticipates EDF Renewables' Brickyard Hill wind farm will come online in 2020. EDF plans to sell the 157-megawatt project to Ameren. Whether the farm will pay property taxes to both the Rock Port and the Tarkio school districts, along with other local taxing entities, depends on whether the governor signs Andrews' bill.

Bailey said that in Atchison County, the companies behind the wind projects have done more than pay taxes. Enel, for example, donated $63,000 of playground equipment to Fairfax City Park. In Tarkio, it bought and renovated an old ShopKo building to use as its base of operations. And, after pouring cement for its turbine bases, it used the leftover mix to fill potholes in town.

Atchison County offered enhanced enterprise zone tax incentives to attract wind-energy companies. Development projects that create at least five new full-time jobs for local residents qualify for 50% to 60% real property tax abatements for potentially the next 19 years.

The salary range for wind farm jobs is $40,000 to $110,000. Atchison's median household income, by comparison, is $50,000. Most workers maintain the turbines, while others handle company logistics.

The first thing Kim Tindel noticed was the birds disappearing.

When the turbines for the Osborn Wind Project went up on the properties surrounding the DeKalb County home where she and her husband, Scott, live, there was plenty of wildlife in the area. Their property backs up to Pony Express Lake Conservation Area, 3,290 acres of water and wilderness teeming with waterfowl and other wildlife.

Almost two years after the turbines went up, Tindel said, the birds have seemingly vanished.

"I used to go through a huge bag of bird feed every week," Tindel said. "Now if I say I go through one a month I'm a liar."

Tindel, who said she's also noticed other animals have become scarce, said she really took notice of the turbines' impact when she saw a flock of Canada geese break their V-formation while flying over a turbine.

"When I saw it I just burst into tears," Tindel said. "It was so unfair to those birds."

Tindel's neighbor and longtime friend Johni Walker said he watched a bird fly into a turbine and die. The Missouri Department of Conservation in 2016 found a dead bald eagle at the Lost Creek Wind Farm in DeKalb County in 2015, according to the St. Joseph News-Press.

Walker said it doesn't make sense.

"If you or me kill a bald eagle, that's illegal," Walker said. "For them, it's just a part of doing business."

Walker's land has been in his family since his grandfather bought it in the 1940s. One wind turbine towers hundreds of feet directly north of his property, and there are two more close by to the south.

When NextEra was planning the Osborn Wind Project, which includes 97 turbines generating about 200 megawatts of power for Kansas City Power & Light, it sought feedback from the conservation department about its proximity to Pony Express Lake Conservation Area, a premier destination for dove hunters and home to rare trumpeter swans.

The department met with company representatives and recommended turbines be placed no closer than two to three miles from the area's borders. A letter from the department to NextEra suggested shutting down turbines during peak flight times to avoid striking birds and bats. NextEra, however, erected 21 turbines within a mile of the conservation area. It cited research showing wind turbines have little or no impact on wildlife.

Tindel and Walker take offense when people refer to the wind-energy projects as farms.

"There's nothing agricultural about them," Walker said. "It's an insult to farmers to call them farms."

Tindel calls it "a great marketing ploy" that distracts "from how terrible they are."

DeKalb County is also home to the Lost Creek Wind Farm operated by Pattern Energy. It spans 32,000 acres and has 100 turbines generating 150 megawatts of energy. It sells the power to Associated Electric Cooperative.

Tindel and Walker are members of Concerned Citizens of DeKalb County, which organized to educate people about the impact of wind turbines. The group meets every Sunday, save holidays, to talk about its concerns, to learn about the projects and to plan ways to advocate for the community.

Tindel said people have threatened her since she began speaking out against the turbines.

"Our neighbors started turning on us," Tindel said. "They said we didn't care about the environment or just hated renewable energy. I don't hate renewable energy; I just hate the way they've gone about it."

Tindel said she and her husband have been asked why they don't just get an apartment in the city.

"We haven't done anything wrong," she said. "This is our home, and I just want to be able to get some sleep in my own bed."

DeKalb Presiding County Commissioner Kyle Carroll said residents' frustration is born in part of the fact that the residents had "very little say in the matter." Dekalb County has no county-wide zoning restrictions, so NextEra and other wind-power companies have been free to do what they want in parts of the county.

"The company worked out contracts with landowners without public input," Carroll said. "Even when they heard complaints, they didn't pay attention."

Because DeKalb County offered no tax incentives to the wind companies, there were no public hearings like those in Atchison County. The companies' individual contracts are private, and some include clauses prohibiting people from talking about the compensation they receive for having turbines on their land.

Tindel said she's called the Osborn Wind Farm's office "over a hundred times" complaining about the noise the turbines make and the lights on top of them.

"They insist everything's running at 'industry standard,'" Tindel said. "But our community's better than industry standard."

Carroll has no turbines on or near his property, but he lives within a few miles of the Osborn Wind Farm. He said not living next door doesn't mean you don't experience them.

"All across our horizon flashes bright red light," Carroll said. "Hundreds of them, every four seconds, for as far as you can see."

Residents also complain about "shadow flickering," which happens when a turbine's spinning blades intermittently block the sun over and over again, causing a flicker effect that Tindel has documented in videos recorded near homes, on roads and in fields.

While studies have shown that the speed of wind turbine shadow flicker is often too slow to cause seizures, some people have reported headaches, nausea and dizziness.

"They told us it was rare and wouldn't happen often," Tindel said, adding that it's most common in winter. "Their definition of often must be off."

Tindel said she has headaches and trouble sleeping. The turbines make a mechanical whooshing sound, similar to a washing machine, which grows louder when the wind picks up.

"They say they aren't that loud, but they're loud enough to keep me up at night," she said. It's also enough to ruin the Tindels' plans for a sun porch they've been adding to their home.

"You can never have a quiet summer evening anymore," Carroll said.

The destruction of roads and land that came with the development of wind farms wasn't an easy pill to swallow for residents of Atchison or DeKalb counties. Even Klute, who loves the wind farms, described the construction as "hell."

The companies also tend to be "tight-lipped" about their construction plans, Klute said.

Tindel agreed, saying residents were never informed about when and where companies would be transporting equipment and materials across the county's roads.

Klute said that the trucks used to transport turbine components tore up the roads, but that NextEra more than repaired the damage.

"Now Route M is better than any other lettered road in the state," Klute said.

Although wind-energy projects in Missouri have gained their foothold in the northwest, they're beginning to blow across the landscape. Ameren has plans for a large wind farm in the northeast, and E.ON Climate & Renewables has its sights set on Boone County.

Residents near Harrisburg were surprised to hear of E.ON's plans, which most learned about through letters inviting them to a community barbecue where they could get information about the wind farm and how they might get turbines erected on their properties. The letter said the company already had contracts with landowners spanning 2,500 acres.

The plan prompted the formation of Concerned Citizens for the Future of Boone County, which shares firsthand accounts on its Facebook page along with news articles and other information about wind farms and turbines.

The proposal also has the Boone County Planning and Zoning Commission working to figure out how to accommodate wind farms in the county zoning code. County Resource Management Director Stan Shawver wondered aloud at an April 30 work session why E.ON would want to build a wind farm here, given that some neighboring counties have no zoning restrictions.

"Why would you go someplace you have to deal with regulations?" Shawver asked. "Our amount of puzzlement doesn't change the fact that we need to come up with a logical, reasonable regulation."

DeKalb County residents, who already have attended meetings in Clinton and Buchanan counties to speak out about their experiences living near wind turbines, are paying attention to what's happening in Boone County.

Tindel said the companies failed to anticipate how much the turbines would motivate opponents.

"They've turned us into expert witnesses," Tindel said. "We've done our research; we've lived with these things. And we're not going to be quiet about it."

Bailey, a 2000 University of Missouri graduate, is thrilled at the prospect of Boone County getting a wind farm, but she urges caution. "Make sure the taxes get assessed locally."

But Walker, who used to live in Columbia, is nervous. He said the turbines might be tall enough that their lights will be visible from north Columbia.

Despite her opposition, Tindel said she hopes things will work out.

"Maybe they'll be kinder in that area," Tindel said. "But you have to make sure to fight for your community."