Madison County puts effective ban on new wind energy development as storm over turbines continues
The battle over wind turbines continues to rage in Iowa's Madison County, where supervisors have approved restrictions on wind and solar development that opponents say strip landowners of their rights and jeopardize new and existing renewable energy projects.
In action critics contend was taken hastily and without sufficient public notice or comment, the supervisors voted 2-to-1 in December to cap the number of turbines in the county at 51 — the current figure.
"This is a de facto ban on wind in Madison County," said Kerri Johannsen, the Iowa Environmental Council's energy program director. "We know there are people in Madison County who want to see wind development," she said, adding that the county's wind and solar ordinances fail to "balance those interests."
Des Moines-based MidAmerican Energy filed a lawsuit Thursday against the supervisors, saying the ordinance would prevent construction of its 52-turbine Arbor Hill wind project and potentially shut down a $200 million wind farm that's been operational in southwest Madison County since 2014.
"The new ordinance is an illegal, targeted attempt to stop the ongoing development of the previously permitted Arbor Hill project," the company said in the lawsuit. It also would render MidAmerican's existing Macksburg project out of compliance and make it "impossible to continue to operate," the suit said.
Also Thursday, an appeals court let stand a district court ruling that the county legally approved the Arbor Hill project in 2018 — long before the current supervisors imposed the cap on turbines. MidAmerican said it wants to begin construction of Arbor Hill, an expansion of its wind farm in next-door Adair County, this year, building up to 52 turbines.
MidAmerican seeks to invalidate the county's new wind ordinance, saying the rules are unreasonable and threaten the investor-owned utility's investment, including $700,000 spent so far to develop the Arbor Hill project. While the suit is pending, the company, owned by Warren Buffett, seeks to temporarily stop the ordinance's enforcement.
An attorney for a coalition of county residents, which challenged the Arbor Hill project in court, said Thursday he needs to discuss the appeals court ruling with members before determining their next step.
The board supervisors — Heather Stancil, Diane Fitch and Phil Clifton — couldn't be immediately reached Thursday evening for comment on MidAmerican's lawsuit.
Earlier this week, Fitch and Stancil, both of whom supported the cap on turbines, said residents wanted action, especially on wind energy development. Clifton, who couldn't be reached for comment, voted against the ordinances.
"We've been arguing about this for years. People just don't want them," Fitch said of the towering turbines.
The nation might be bitterly divided over politics, Stancil said in an email to the Des Moines Register, but opposition to additional wind development is "decidedly bipartisan" in Madison County, which sits on the edge of the Des Moines metro and is best known for its picturesque covered bridges.
In 2019, the supervisors passed a year-long moratorium on new solar and wind development that ended last October. Fitch and Stancil say the county held numerous workshops, hearings and public forums before and after the moratorium was put in place, and the opposition to further wind energy development was clear.
The Iowa Conservative Energy Forum, a nonprofit group that includes current and former state and local Republican elected officials, party leaders and farmers, said last week that the supervisors bypassed normal procedure in approving the wind and solar restrictions: They skipped review by the Madison County Zoning Commission, and passed the restrictions the week of the Christmas holiday, waiving second and third readings of the ordinances, all in the same meeting.
"This move eliminates the opportunity for citizens to weigh in on the newly introduced policies and skips the due diligence review provided by the zoning commission," the group said.
Ray Gaesser, a southwest Iowa farmer who is the energy forum's chairman, said landowners should have "the right to decide if a wind turbine is right for his or her farm.”
“The fact the supervisors made the unprecedented decision to pass the most restrictive ordinances in the country without input from residents or the zoning commission is astonishing, and does not make for transparent government," said Gaesser, who has held state and national agricultural leadership positions.
Fitch said the county attorney's office told the supervisors that zoning commission action wasn't needed. She said the county has struggled to get members appointed to the commission and it hasn't met often, given the ongoing coronavirus public health emergency.
Stancil said the county's last three election cycles have served as referendums on wind development. "In 2018, the county supervisor candidate who ran openly opposed to further industrial wind development won most of the votes, and in 2020 both the Democrat and Republican candidates who ran openly and unequivocally opposed to this each won their respective primaries," Stancil said.
Stancil, new to the board, won the supervisor race in November with 65% of the vote. Fitch was the largest vote-getter in 2018, when she and Clifton were elected to office. Clifton, an incumbent, had the second-most votes. All three are Republicans.
Ronni Scott, a member of a group that opposes wind development, said Madison County landowners don't have the right to impose the turbines on their neighbors.
"Now the property rights of the non-participating neighbors are being preserved," said Scott, a member of the Residents Rights Coalition of Madison County.
Opponents to wind say the turbines' noise and spinning blades cause headaches, nausea and interrupt sleep, among other concerns. In 2019, the Madison County Board of Health recommended that the turbines be built farther from homes. The board said then-current commercial wind turbine distances were "inadequate to protect public health."
The new wind ordinance requires turbines to be 1.5 miles away from neighbors who aren't leasing land for wind farms and limits the height of the turbines to 500 feet. The wind ordinance also limits the amount of noise the turbines can make, among other requirements.
The ordinance on solar limits developments to 500 acres.
MidAmerican said its wind turbines are 1,500 feet from neighbors, exceeding a previous recommendation from the county. And most of the utility's Arbor Hill turbines in Adair County are just under 500 feet in height, although about a dozen newer turbines are close to 600 feet tall from the ground to the blade tip.
Judy Neal, who lives on 80 acres in Madison County, said she and her husband feel the supervisors passed the wind and solar ordinances "totally under the radar."
She said many opponents of wind have moved from urban areas and "don't earn their money from the land." Her husband, Steve, helps his family farm on about 240 acres they own together.
Neal said she agreed to be part of the MidAmerican Arbor Hill project in large part because she believes Iowa and the nation need more renewable energy. Money from leasing about 4 acres to MidAmerican for a turbine would be "icing on the cake," she said.
Neal said the ordinances will deprive the county of tax revenues it needs to repair aging roads, bridges and other public infrastructure. "We're really disappointed," she said. "It's frustrating."
Iowa landowners receive about $69 million annually in lease payments from wind farms, and state and local governments receive about $61 million in taxes, based on estimates from the American Wind Energy Association.
Iowa generated 42% of its electricity from wind in 2019, the largest share of wind power for any state nationally, the U.S. Energy Information Administration says. The state ranks second in the U.S. to Texas for its of wind-generating capacity.
Fitch said many of the landowners who agree to turbine leases in Iowa live outside the state. "It's easy money for retired farmers," she said.
She added that she believes the wind turbines turn off tourists visiting the county, whose covered bridges were immortalized in author Robert Waller's best-selling book, "The Bridges of Madison County," and the Academy Award-nominated film based on it.
Neal disagrees, calling the turbines on the landscape "majestic." She said she understands the county might want to limit wind development, but she doesn't understand why supervisors didn't allow for some additional development.
"There's not a place in Madison County where you could build a turbine, given the setback requirements," she said. "They're outrageous."
Johannsen, the Iowa Environmental Council's energy program director, said the group had been involved with discussions about wind and solar development, and was surprised when the supervisors took action on ordinances late last year.
She said supervisors approved the renewable energy restrictions based on "misinformation about the health impact" of wind turbines. If other counties seek similar restrictions, she said lawmakers may need to consider statewide siting requirements for wind and other renewable energy projects.
"There's more room for wind development ... and more room for solar," Johannsen said.