Lancaster County will still have the most stringent setbacks for wind farms of any county in the state, but they will now be a little less stringent.
The County Board voted 4-1 Tuesday to approve an amendment offered by Commissioner Rick Vest that puts the setback at five times the wind turbine's height to a nonparticipating property owner's home or two times the height to the property line, whichever is longer.
For a 500-foot-tall wind turbine, that would be 2,500 feet, which is just less than half a mile.
That's more than what was recommended by the Lincoln-Lancaster County Planning Department but quite a bit less than the mile setback the County Board approved last month after hearing testimony from members of the group Prairie Wind Watchers, who said the distance was necessary to protect their property values and quality of life.
NextEra Energy Resources has expressed interest in siting a wind farm on properties in southern Lancaster and northern Gage counties.
The Florida-based company succeeded last year in getting the county to increase sound limits for properties that choose to participate in a wind farm project to 50 decibels, but it did not challenge rules that require sound levels not to exceed 40 decibels during the day and 37 at night for nonparticipating properties.
Officials from NextEra, the Planning Department and Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department had all said during previous public testimony that the sound limits would make it difficult to locate wind turbines within a mile of a nonparticipating property.
Prairie Wind Watchers had used those admissions to craft the mile setback proposal.
At Tuesday's meeting, Yvonne Mihulka-Poole, who lives in the area, said the mile setback along with the sound levels are needed to protect property owners who unlike their neighbors are not being paid to be part of a wind farm development.
"The distance and the sound together will protect us," she said.
Vest, who was one of three commissioners to vote in favor of the mile setback requirement last month, said his goal was to allow wind development while providing as much protection as possible to neighbors who don't want to be part of a project.
He said that after last month's meeting, he heard new information that suggested the mile setback might stifle wind development in the county, something he said was never his intent.
David Kuhn of NextEra said the sound-modeling study the company did that suggested turbines would have to be a mile from homes was based on "the most conservative case possible" and assumed that the largest and loudest turbines would be used.
New technology or use of smaller turbines could mean the company could site them closer than a mile to a home and still meet sound requirements.
Unlike previous hearings, when wind opponents far outnumbered proponents, there were about twice as many people who testified Tuesday against the mile setback as those who testified in favor of keeping it.
While many were representatives of clean energy or other advocacy groups, several area farmers who are hoping to host wind turbines showed up to testify.
Greg Schwaninger said there are 100 area landowners who have signed leases with NextEra, which shows there are plenty of people who do want to be part of the project.
And others pointed out that the project will provide a needed source of income to farmers who are struggling with low commodity prices and high property taxes.
"Lancaster County is in need of this wind farm for clean energy, for the tax dollars and just really to help out Lancaster County," said Carla Hansmeyer.
In addition to Vest, Commissioners Roma Amundson, Jennifer Brinkman and Sean Flowerday voted for the amended setbacks, while Deb Schorr voted against.
Other than Vest, Amundson was the only commissioner to change her vote. She said she lives on an acreage and certainly sees the quality-of-life argument. But she said she's also a farmer's daughter and can see the argument for wind farms as a form of property tax relief.