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Wind farm decision towering

By KALEY LYON

Hays Daily News

On Tuesday morning, Vernon Berens, Dennis Pfannenstiel and Perry Henman will make arguably their biggest decision as Ellis County commissioners: wind farm or no wind farm.

The much-anticipated vote regarding a conditional-use permit application for a wind-energy development southwest of Hays is scheduled for 11 a.m.

"We will vote on Tuesday, and we will make the decision on Tuesday," Chairman Vernon Berens said. "Hopefully, it will be for the betterment of the people of Ellis County."

Because more than 40 percent of property owners within 1,000 feet of the area under easement for the project filed protest petitions with the Ellis County Clerk, a 3-0 vote will be needed to grant the permit.

The Ellis County Planning and Zoning Commission recommended approval of the permit in a 6-1 vote in early June.

Competitive Power Ventures, now Iberdrola Renewable Energies USA, applied for the permit in March. For the past several months, county commissioners have been communicating with constituents and preparing to make their decision.

HDN: Do you know how you're going to vote?

All three commissioners said they have their minds made up, but declined to publicly state their position prior to Tuesday's meeting.

Commissioners said that, in making their decisions, they considered information from a variety of sources.

"I have read every letter I have received from people for or against it. I have gone to meetings for the people for it and for the people against it," Pfannenstiel said. "So I think I've done everything I can as far as trying to come to, hopefully, the right decision."

Commissioners also said they have visited other wind farms in the state of Kansas, such as the developments in Spearville and Montezuma.

Pfannenstiel, who also visited a wind development in Minnesota, said that among the issues he's researched is turbine-related concerns about human health and bird population.

Unsightliness and the lack of compensation for surrounding landowners are other concerns he's encountered, he said.

Berens said he's also visited with county commissioners in other Kansas counties with wind developments.

Henman said he's decided not to let the over-arching debate of wind energy as a whole effect his decision. The issue is based on zoning regulations, property rights and local quality of life, he said.

"Personally, I'm trying to not let those things influence my decision -- if wind towers are evil or good," Henman said. "To me, they're a machine. It makes electricity, and we just need to decide, through zoning, where we need to put them."

HDN: Is the wind farm the biggest issue you've faced during your tenure thus far? Is it the most divisive?

Commissioners agreed the wind farm issue is the biggest and most divisive they have faced. Chairman Vernon Berens has served for 11 years, Dennis Pfannenstiel has served for seven years and Perry Henman was elected in November.

Henman said he wasn't expecting to face such a heated issue so early in his term.

"It's definitely the most divisive anyway," he said. "I was thinking budget (would be)."

HDN: Do you have any estimate of how many communications you've received regarding this issue?

During the past several months, commissioners have received hundreds of letters, taken dozens of phone calls and have been asked about the issue many times in public, they said.

Berens and Pfannenstiel said that, at this point, the number of communications in favor of the wind farm seem to outnumber opinions expressing opposition.

Commissioners also agreed location is a factor. People who live farther from the project site tend to be more in favor of it than those in close proximity to the proposed project site.

Berens said the issue is not as heated in Victoria and the eastern part of the county, and Henman expressed a similar opinion about Ellis and western Ellis County.

"There are both sides, but they don't have quite the vested interest in it," Henman said. "They're more looking from the outside in."

Commissioners said that, for the most part, the amount of constituent communications has remained constant throughout the process.

HDN: This process has been a complicated one, for the county and county employees. What do you think some of the biggest challenges have been?

Overall, county employees have been asked to look into a variety of issues and assume new tasks, which has been challenging, Pfannenstiel said.

"I would probably say, as far as a challenge for these employees, would have been that the people that have been against the project have raised many, many issues," Pfannenstiel said. "I think that's where most of the work has come in."

Commissioner Berens commended county employees for their efforts with this application, and said the county has adapted well to zoning regulations and the application process.

This process has been an educational one for the county, Henman said.

"We really weren't, or aren't, prepared for this size of a project. At least, it didn't appear to me that we are," Henman said. "It's been a learning experience. We can grow, get something useful out of this process and learn from our mistakes."

All three commissioners said changes might need to be made in Ellis County's zoning regulations in the future.

"There are some things in the zoning regs that may have to be changed," Pfannenstiel said. "I think we had a very qualified person in charge of the zoning, but again, some things can be missed. But everything that's written can be changed."

HDN: The zoning commission made its recommendation in June. What issues have delayed the county commission's decision?

Commissioners explained that the extra time was needed to review the legal process with county counselor Dennis R. Davidson.

Allowing adequate time to formulate a well-grounded decision and for the public to submit their opinions was another factor, Pfannenstiel said.

HDN: Do you expect your final decision to be the end of the process? Any concern a lawsuit might follow?

While the county commission's decision Tuesday will be final, commissioners said they have heard a lawsuit might be a possibility.

"I've heard that from both sides," Henman said. "I have no control over that."

Berens agreed this is not something the county can control.

"What happens, happens," he said.

Pfannenstiel said he believes a lawsuit will be more likely if approval is granted.

Reporter Kaley Lyon can be reached at (785) 628-1081, Ext. 138, or by e-mail at

klyon@dailynews.net.