Despite strong opposition from residents of southwestern Lancaster County, the Lincoln-Lancaster County Planning Commission on Wednesday approved changes to the noise limits in its zoning code for wind farms.
The commission voted 8-1 in favor of a text amendment that would designate a higher noise standard for properties that choose to participate in a wind project than for those that don't.
Current noise regulations, which were adopted in 2015, set limits of 40 decibels during daytime hours and 37 at night. The newly proposed regulations would keep those limits for properties that don't wish to be part of a project but raise them to 50 decibels around the clock for property owners who want to be part of a project.
The change was supported by both the Planning Department and the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department, which cited three studies that showed people participating in a wind project report lower levels of annoyance despite the higher sound levels.
The change 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.
NextEra, which operates the Steele Flats Wind Energy Center about three miles south of Diller, as well as others in the state, bought the remnants of a project from Volkswind, a company that announced plans to build a wind farm in the area years ago.
But Volkswind abandoned its plans after Lancaster County adopted its regulations.
Gage County also updated its regulations, but they are much more permissive, allowing decibel limits of 60 for participating projects and 45 during the day and 40 at night for nonparticipating properties.
Officials for NextEra said the higher limit in Lancaster County does not guarantee a project will be brought forward. However, "If the regulations stayed the same, we'd put zero turbines in Lancaster County," said Philip Clement, a project manager with NextEra.
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That would be fine with area residents, who showed up in force to oppose the project. They cited a number of concerns, including sound, shadows caused by turbine blades, potential negative health issues, threats to wildlife and lowered property values.
Charlotte Newman, who lives in rural Martell, said the regulations mean people not participating in a wind farm would be forced to deal with all the problems as if they were.
Mark Hunzeker, an attorney representing another property owner, called wind farms a "hideous blight on the landscape" and said the issue was about protecting surrounding property owners.
But David Levy, an Omaha attorney representing NextEra, said the issue was about balancing the rights of property owners.
He called the current Lancaster County sound limits the "most protective" he has seen of any county in the state. And he pointed out that those limits would not be changing for nonparticipating property owners, only for owners who choose to sign a contract with the company.
"Fundamentally, what we are asking for here is that you give landowners a choice and developers a chance," Levy said.
Planning commissioners generally said they believed the change in sound limits for participating property owners would balance their rights with the rights of those who choose not to participate.
The proposed change will now go on to the Lancaster County Board, which will have the final say. The board tentatively plans to hold a public hearing on the issue Dec. 18.