WILBER -- A Nebraska company cleared a major hurdle Tuesday with the approval of a special use permit to build 37 wind turbines in Saline County, the first of three wind farms it plans for the state.
Following more than two hours of public comment that pitted neighbor against neighbor, Saline County Commissioners granted the permit requested by Aksamit Resource Management for a 74 megawatt wind farm the company plans to built northeast of Milligan.
Wind turbines have been a contentious issue for Nebraskans in recent years. A couple hundred people protested a 30-turbine wind farm last week at a Cherry County planning and zoning meeting, the North Platte Telegraph reported.
In Butler County, which lacks zoning, the Board of Supervisors has condemned efforts by six townships to regulate wind farms.
In Lancaster County, commissioners last year established noise limits of 40 decibels in the day and 37 at night for wind turbines. The limits were prompted by a proposal from Oregon-based Volkswind USA to build more than 50 wind turbines in southern Lancaster and northern Gage counties.
In Saline County, Aksamit plans to spend $110 million to build 37 turbines, each 440 feet tall when blades are at their highest point, said Michael Matheson, the company’s vice president of retail and municipal sales.
Matheson said Aksamit is in negotiations to sell the power the turbines will produce but declined to say with whom.
Construction is expected to begin after harvest this fall, with the turbines operational by Nov. 1, 2017, said Jason Edwards, Aksamit’s vice president of energy development.
The company also proposes at a later date to spend about $440 million on two more wind projects, including an additional 300 megawatt wind farm in Saline County with 90 turbines and 76 megawatt wind farm in Thayer County with 40 turbines.
The Saline County Wind Association, a group of landowners and county residents who first met in 2008, has been working for years to bring turbines to the county and helped recruit Aksamit.
“This is a good project for us,” said Jamie Girmus, a landowner and member of the association.
It will bring money to both farmers and local governments and schools, she and other supporters said.
Aksamit estimated its initial 37-turbine facility will generate a combined $700,000 for landowners and local tax revenue.
Opponents of the Saline County project cited many of the same studies and concerns presented by opponents of other projects -- the annoyance and health impacts caused by the sound of the blades, decreased property values, despoiling of picturesque views and possible harm to wildlife.
They also had complaints more specific to the county and their individual situations.
Jim Jirsa, whose house will be within a half mile of a tower, asked for the turbine by his place to be moved another quarter mile away.
Christine McClain and her husband, Gary, bought land five months ago and spent their savings building a new home that will now be flanked by turbines. She said her dreams of a peaceful life in the country have been ruined. She fears the whoosh-thump of the turbines will cause her headaches and other ailments.
“Had I known this was going to happen, I would not have purchased my property. I’m furious,” she said.
Jan Buzek of Tobias said the county’s zoning regulations violate the equal protection clause of the United States Constitution because people who have turbines on their land get the protection of ordinances limiting noise to 50 decibels. County zoning regulations say nothing about people who live nearby but haven’t signed contracts, making them an unprotected separate class, he said.
Commissioner Tim McDermott said concerns about possible health impacts of turbines made him second guess his support of the project, and he wished the board had an independent medical opinion on the issue. In the end, he voted to approve the special use permit along with Janet Henning and Willis Luedke.
Commissioners Marvin Kohout and Stephanie Krivohlavek abstained from voting, Kohout because he owns land contiguous to the project and Krivohlavek because she has family that could benefit from it.
The public hearing held prior to the commissioners’ vote Tuesday attracted more than 25 people, prompting officials to move the hearing from the usual meeting room on the second floor of the Saline County Courthouse to the more spacious district court room on the third floor.