A court in Iowa has ordered three wind turbines in Fayette County, Iowa be dismantled by December 9. Local residents are standing outside watching them come down and cheering. What’s going on? Some of it has to do with NIMBY, some of it has to do with money, and some of it has to do with the “city vs. country” divide that helped propel the current president into office. The dispute comes down to whether or not the developers who put up the wind turbines had a proper building permit. The court ruled they did not.
It’s fair to say most CleanTechnica readers like the idea of renewable energy. But how many of us would want a wind turbine literally in our backyard? Cheyney Hershey, who lives near the turbines, tells the Des Moines Register that he and his family are thrilled they are coming down. “It’s great. We love it. You can’t sit outside on the deck and have a conversation without the constant thumping of the blades going round.” He says the noise even penetrates into the interior of their home. “There was nowhere to get away from them.” That actually doesn’t sound very pleasant, does it?
Here’s the legal path that led to the order to take the turbines down. In 2015, the Fayette County Zoning Board approved the plan to build the turbines and issued the necessary permits for work to proceed. Residents who lived near the proposed wind turbines went to court claiming the permits were invalid. A district court judge agreed, ruling the permits were “illegal and void.”
Here’s where the wind developers made a crucial error. They moved forward with the project while they appealed the district court decision. The appellate court denied their appeal and the Iowa Supreme Court declined to review the appellate court decision. That let the original district court ruling stand. The district court than enforced its original ruling by ordering the turbines taken down.
The developers put up $11 million in the project. It will cost $450,000 to dismantle the turbines, which will now go into storage until someone can figure out what to do with them. Perhaps they could go on Craigslist: “For Sale — three wind turbines. Like new. $11 million or best offer. Will deliver.”
What is interesting about this story is that wind power is very popular in Iowa. The state adopted its first renewable energy standard in 1983. Today, it gets 37% of its electricity from wind generation. That’s the highest percentage of any state in the nation and makes wind second only to coal when it comes to energy generation in the Buckeye State. “It was a shock that the neighbors and Fairbank could say we didn’t want them” and win, said Ted Vorwald, a Fairbank city council member.
Several area residents told the Des Moines Register of their objections to the turbines. Joyce Kerns says Fairbank is a lovely rural community that is attracting a lot of young professionals. She knows people in the community who complain of nausea and lack of sleep because of the turbines. The turning blades cause flickering shadows “like being back in the ’70s with the strobe lights,” she says.
“In the short term it’s not bad. But over time, it’s not good for your body,” Kerns insists. “Unless you live under a turbine, you don’t understand what it’s like.” She also says the developers were “bullies” who just forged ahead with the project even though they knew an appeal was pending. “They just weren’t considerate of the townspeople.”
Janna Swanson, who lives in northwest Iowa and is a wind turbine opponent, says, “The courts are the only place we have to defend ourselves.” She believes rural Iowa families shouldn’t have to suffer the harm wind turbines cause just to satisfy the desire of people who live in the city to feel good about the environment.
“A lot of places say we’re against renewable energy,” Swanson says. “That has nothing to do with it. What we care about is our homes, our health, our land, our wildlife and our economy.” Swanson is on the board of directors of the Coalition for Rural Property Rights.
A lot of people in Fairbank feel the wind developers were motivated by greed, but there’s another side to the story. Ron Woods has been one of the most ardent opponents of the wind turbines. He is a co-owner of Woods Construction, which plans to build 36 houses on a parcel of land near the wind turbines. He also is a member of the Fairbank city council.
The bottom line is that one group of developers outsmarted another group of developers. You could say some city folks looking to make a bunch of money got outfoxed by a bunch of farmers looking to make a bunch of money. “All politics is local,” Tip O’Neill used to say — a lesson wind farm developers in Iowa and other states should bear in mind.
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