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Steele Flats Wind Project

NextEra, which owns the Steele Flats Wind Energy Center  near Diller (shown here), is considering building a wind farm in southern Lancaster and northern Gage counties.

Landowners who sign on to a wind turbine project will have a higher noise level standard than landowners who aren’t getting any reimbursements, under changes approved by the Lancaster County Board on Tuesday.

Lancaster County commissioners voted 4-1 to increase the decibel level standard for landowners participating in a wind turbine project, paving the way for a potential wind farm in southern Lancaster County.

The new standard is based on research showing landowners who are participating financially in a wind farm find the noise much less annoying than landowners who aren't participating. 

Only Commissioner Deb Schorr, whose district includes southern Lancaster County, voted against the change.

The issue was never about renewable energy, Schorr said. It is about siting a wind farm in the second-most populated county in the state, she said. 

Lancaster County approved strict noise level requirements for wind farms in 2015 that wind energy supporters said would discourage projects in the county.

Those rules established noise level limits of 40 decibels in the day and 37 at night for wind turbines, measured from the home.

The newly approved rules set a 50-decibel upper limit around the clock for property owners who are part of the project, and who are called participating landowners. 

There is no change in the county noise rules for nonparticipating landowners. 

The change, supported by the county's planning and health departments and the Planning Commission, was sought by NextEra Energy Resources, a Florida-based company that is considering building a wind farm with up to 50 turbines in southern Lancaster and northern Gage counties.

The County Board decision gives the company a chance to build a wind farm in Lancaster County, provided enough people buy into the project, said David Kuhn, project manager for NextEra Energy.

The wind farm had "no chance" under the old rules, he said.

Supporters of the project included members of the Citizens Climate Lobby and Nebraska Interfaith Power and Light, who prefer renewable energy over coal-burning electric plants and who pointed to the environmental benefits of wind energy.

“Climate change is real; it's dangerous; it’s serious. It is affecting our health, our national security, our economy," said Laurel Van Ham with the Citizens Climate Lobby.

“Renewable energy is one thing we can do about climate change,” said Ken Winston with Nebraska Interfaith Power and Light.

Other supporters, including the Center for Rural Affairs and Farmers Union of Nebraska, pointed to the new jobs, new income to farmers and greater property taxes that come from wind farms.

For farmers, the income is often similar to a part-time job, said Lou Nelson with the Center for Rural Affairs, who said he was quoting John Hansen of the Nebraska Farmers Union.

Several supporters pointed to the noise from things besides turbines.

Doug Dittman, who said he has visited about five wind farms, said he heard quite a bit of racket from the trucks going by.

“There is a sound, a whir, a hum. But when it comes to racket, it is the vehicles on the highway that are passing by,” Dittman said.

However, people who own land in the area and oppose neighboring wind farms pointed out that most of those who support the farms because of environmental concerns are not going to live near any wind farms.

"People from other places can say how much they are in favor, but they are not going to be surrounded by them. They will not be affected by them every day for the rest of their life,” Charlotte Newman said. 

The nearly 2 1/2-hour hearing highlighted competing property interests, where landowners who want a wind turbine and those who don’t both have property rights.

Larry Oltman, representing his family-owned farm corporation, said the change in noise level gives freedom to the participating farmers who want to work together.

“This means a lot financially to some of us guys,” he said.

“I do believe in the natural harvesting of wind. We’ve been doing it on a small scale with windmills that pumped our water,” he said.

But opponents said that a wind farm could affect their health and will likely reduce the property value of their land and homes.

The landscape will be changed forever; wildlife will be affected, property values will be affected, said Daryl Schoenbeck. 

"Have you heard testimony from anyone who lives by one and actually enjoys it," asked Mike Woodward.

“We should not allow big business to pay people to increase the risk to their health,” said Darren Compton.

This project would pay more than $550,000 in lease payments to landowners and a similar amount in property taxes, said David Levy, an Omaha attorney representing NextEra.

The change in noise rules gives property owners a choice and gives developers a chance, Levy said. It doesn’t guarantee the wind farm can be built.

The site in both Lancaster and Gage counties has the three things needed for a successful wind project, Levy said: good wind, willing landowners and good access to a transmission grid.

About 85 landowners are already participating in this project, he said.

NextEra bought the project from Volkswind, a company that had plans to build a wind farm four years ago but failed to follow through after both Gage and Lancaster counties changed their wind farm regulations.

Opponents — a group called Prairie Wind Watchers — have recently filed another zoning change with the Planning Department that proposes new application requirements, pre-application studies, noise monitoring and enforcement requirements.

Commissioners refused to delay a decision on the noise requirements because of that recent rule change proposal from opponents.

Commissioner Jennifer Brinkman pointed out that opponents could simply continue to propose new rules as an endless delaying tactic. 

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7250 or nhicks@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSNancyHicks.

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Reporter

Nancy Hicks reports on Lincoln city government, but she’s been following the leaders of local and state government for more than 40 years.

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