Belle Creek Township sued by big wind
Wednesday January 04, 2012
Submitted by Terri Washburn on Tue, 01/03/2012
Belle Creek Township is working with a Minneapolis law firm to deal with a lawsuit by Goodhue Wind, LLC. They are being sued for “declaratory judgment” and “injunctive relief”.
Chad Ryan, the township’s chairman, told the Kenyon Leader on Tuesday that Belle Creek Township has been allowed a 14 day extension to provide a written response to the complaint. The extension was requested by the township because they were given 20 days to respond and that fell within the holidays, leaving little time to reasonably pursue the issue with their legal council.
The Belle Creek township board earlier voted to appeal a decision by the Public Utilities Commission that allows developer Goodhue Wind, LLC to proceed with a $179 million wind project in Goodhue County.
"People have not listened to us. Everybody's ignored us," Ryan said. "They're just plain ignoring what the people want."
Ryan said Belle Creek's decision came after Goodhue County officials decided against filing an appeal of their own against the PUC. The project could include 50 turbines spread across 32,000 acres of farmland in Goodhue County. The township wants a county ordinance with stricter setback requirements for turbines to govern the project, according to Ryan.
"Since the county won't fight it, we felt that we will," Ryan said. "Generally speaking, I would say that 80 percent of the citizens of Belle Creek wanted us to appeal, so that's probably one of the main reasons why we decided to appeal."
The turbine project has generated strong opposition from some residents, who question the effect the turbines will have on local wildlife and eagle populations.
In December, citizens filed letters with the PUC to document their concerns over low-flying helicopters amounting to harassment and disrupting eagle nesting sites. According to information from Mary Hartman in the docket, Westwood Professional Services has been hired by Goodhue Wind to check communal roosting of eagles and other raptors, and was conducting it’s monthly checks.
Back in November, Ryan estimated the appeal would cost the small township of 400 residents as much as $40,000. In a phone conversation on Tuesday, Ryan said that figure now looks to range between $50,000 and $75,000. The township is still working with Kennedy & Graven Chartered in Minneapolis, with Troy Gilchrist as their attorney. According to their website, the firm has a primary focus of providing general and special counsel and consulting to cities, townships and schools throughout Minnesota.
The long-standing controversy over the wind farm boils down to whether the state or the county regulate a project that includes 50 turbines spread across 32,000 acres of farmland in Goodhue County. Opponents of the controversial wind farm believe the county's ordinance with stricter setback requirements for the turbines should govern the project.
Under state law, counties are allowed to create their own laws on these issues, but the Public Utilities Commission has the right to override those laws for just cause. That's what the commission did earlier this year when it approved the 78-megawatt wind farm.
But at the end of 2011, Goodhue County commissioners voted against appealing that decision, saying it's the state's job, not the county's, to regulate large wind projects in Minnesota. Now the fight against big wind falls to Belle Creek township, Goodhue Wind Truth and the Coalition for Sensible Siting.
They may, however, receive some help from lawmakers. Recently, Representatives Tim Kelley and Steve Drazkowski, along with Senator John Howe, wrote an opinion in the Minneapolis Star Tribune questioning the wisdom of giving Minnesota Community Based Energy (C-BED) status to large wind projects. They stated that if a renewable energy project is granted C-BED status, owners can charge Xcel Energy higher rates to buy energy through a private contract. Xcel passes those higher costs to ratepayers. Problems arise, they said, when out-of-state investors take advantage of the lack of transparency in existing statutes.
The original purpose, the legislators pointed out, was to expand renewable energy, at the same time protecting communities from large, remote companies whose goal is to extract resources. Local ownership would keep economic benefits in local communities.
By Elizabeth Baier of MN Public Radio News and Terri Washburn
Stories of the Year: Goodhue wind project wraps up year of debate
Posted: Dec 31, 2011
By Brett Boese
The Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN
RED WING — As the wind turbine debate in Goodhue County prepares to flip the calendar into yet another year, somehow the issues seem to still be heating up. What started in 2008 as an issue that "only" pitted neighbor against neighbor, has morphed into something that has created controversy at virtually every turn.
The first half of 2011 was relatively uneventful as an administrative law judge conducted a lengthy review of the issue, but things ramped up quickly after the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission issued a site permit to the 78-megawatt AWA Goodhue wind project on July 30. The process has been especially wild in the past month.
Two citizen groups — Goodhue Wind Truth and the Coalition for Sensible Siting — filed legal challenges Dec. 15 to the PUC's permit decision. Goodhue County and Belle Creek Township had initially voted to pursue a similar course, but both have since dropped out amidst turmoil.
The county board voted in August to file an appeal, but reversed course in November in a decision that's brought commissioner Richard Samuelson, who represents the area where the wind project is sited, under intense scrutiny. Samuelson made the motion in 2010 for a 10-rotor diameter setback to the county's new wind ordinance, which was widely applauded by project critics. However, after the PUC had approved a 6-RD setback for the project, he changed his vote on the appeal issue — a decision that critics deride as being unwilling to defend his own ordinance.
Steve Groth, a vocal project critic whose five-acre property would be virtually surrounded by wind turbines, announced during a Nov. 30 town board meeting in Belle Creek that he'll be initiating a recall process for his commissioner, who was re-elected in 2010.
The battle in the Minnesota Court of Appeals could last up to 12 months, according to Belle Creek Town Board Chairman Chad Ryan, while Groth says the recall process will be completed in about three months.
Belle Creek voted to appeal the PUC permitting decision immediately after Groth's statement on Nov. 30, but was forced to withdraw on Dec. 13 after an unexpected increase in legal fees. National Wind, the project's developer, filed its own lawsuit Dec. 15 against the township over an extension of its moratorium on wind development through March 2012.
National Wind has declined all media inquiries since September, but Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, calls the lawsuit "ill-advised."
Other concerns have been raised about helicopter use in Goodhue County by a company hired by National Wind, safety of protected avian species in the area, and information being submitted to the PUC in AWA Goodhue's much-debated Avian and Bat Protection Plan. The ABPP must be approved by the PUC before construction can begin, though that date has not yet been set.
In addition, 2nd District GOP Rep. John Kline, of Lakeville, earlier this month helped pass a bill to kill federal funding for renewable energy projects, specifically citing the situation in Goodhue County in his argument.
Kelly, Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, and Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing, have all been active in this debate throughout the past year, and say they'll continue to push for clarifying legislation in 2012. In an effort to strengthen local control with regard to wind development, Kelly hopes to "refine and define" how the PUC must consider county ordinances; the PUC can currently disregard any local language if "good cause" is found.
The local legislators also hope to overhaul the controversial Community-Based Energy Development (C-BED) language.
The bounties of renewable energy need to stay at home
Article by: TIM KELLY, STEVE DRAZKOWSKI and JOHN HOWE
Updated: December 29, 2011
The wind project in Goodhue County featured in the Dec. 19 story continues to spark controversy and outrage among citizens living near the site where 50 giant wind turbines will be placed if Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens has his way.
Eagle baiting alleged in ongoing wind farm debate
Dec 17, 2011, 8:19 am
By Brett Boese
The Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN
Carl Denkinger, an agricultural specialist with the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, has investigated six complaints of eagle baiting in the past month within the 32,000-acre wind project footprint.
The Faribault-based official says they've all been reported by Westwood Professional Services, a company hired by National Wind, which has been conducting weekly efforts in the area where 48 turbines are proposed.
While some dead animals have been found in Denkinger's investigations, such as baby pigs and a calf carcass, none have resulted in a violation; by state law, farmers have 72 hours to dispose of dead livestock.
"To make the blanket statement that this is being done to bait eagles, I'm not ready to make that statement," Denkinger said.
However, AWA Goodhue doesn't appear to have accepted that assessment in its new report, which requires approval by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission before construction can begin. In its 127-page Avian and Bat Protection Plan submitted Thursday to the PUC, it says that Denkinger's office has confirmed baiting that has "seriously compromised" avian point count surveys in the area.
"The full extent of the baiting program is unknown but data from at least two of the six observation points has been compromised by baiting activity," AWA Goodhue's wrote in the document.
Citizens put video on YouTube.com this weekend of a helicopter they say was flying by a bald eagle and plan to send hard copies to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the FAA.
Lawyers 'pulled the rug out' on Belle Creek Township
Posted: Dec 14, 2011
By Brett Boese
The Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN
GOODHUE — Belle Creek Town Board's new legal counsel might cost up to four times as much as expected to fight the proposed AWA Goodhue wind farm, the board learned Tuesday in a closed-door meeting.
The news from Belle Creek Town Board Chair Chad Ryan after the meeting floored the 20 or so people who had gathered outside the town hall building wondering what was going on.
The Minneapolis law firm wants $75,000 to represent Belle Creek in the Court of Appeals while seeking to overturn the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission's decision to issue AWA Goodhue a site permit in November. The Minneapolis firm had previously informed the board that the case would cost between $15,000 and $25,000.
The Belle Creek Town Board had voted to move forward with its legal challenge at a special meeting held on November 28. The news was greeted with applause by virtually all of the standing-room only audience, though some harbored concerns about the sticker price for such a decision after it had already paid about $15,000 in legal fees to that point. Tuesday's news makes that decision a no-brainer now — Belle Creek can't afford to continue the appeal with its current lawyers.
Kline applauds Congress' decision to end renewable energy grants in 2012
Dec 14, 2011
By Brett Boese
The Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The bipartisan jobs bill that was passed Tuesday by the House of Representatives includes a provision that could impact construction of the controversial AWA Goodhue wind project.
As part of the legislation, which passed by a 234-193 vote, the Section 1603 renewable energy grants that were part of the 2009 federal stimulus package would be allowed to expire at the end of this month; they had been extended for another 12 months last December and some had pushed for a similar course of action this year.
Minnesota Congressman John Kline has been a vocal critic of Section 1603, especially of late. He sent a letter to his colleagues last week advocating expiration, and specifically cited the local project as his reason for supporting the jobs bill that included that provision.
The project continues to face plenty of hurdles. Read about it in Wednesday's print edition.
Budget isn’t first thing on citizens’ minds
By: Regan Carstensen, The Republican Eagle
Only three citizens spoke at Goodhue County’s Truth-in-Taxation meeting Thursday, and each of their concerns stemmed from a 78-megawatt wind project planned within the county.
The meeting was intended to give county residents an opportunity to share their thoughts on the 1.91 percent levy increase Goodhue County has proposed for its 2012 budget. That hike is lower than the threshold the state has set for mandated truth-in-taxation meetings.
“The board of commissioners has said we want to do this for our public even though we don’t have to,” Goodhue County Finance Director Carolyn Holmsten explained at the meeting.
Rather than commenting directly about the budget, however, citizens spoke primarily about aspects surrounding the AWA Goodhue Wind case and reached the budget in a roundabout way.
Steve Groth, of Goodhue, told the board that allowing wind turbines in the county would greatly deflate the value of homes in the area.
“Our property values will suffer. If we’re going to try to sell our places, we’ll have to take significantly less,” he said.
Another Goodhue resident, Marie McNamara, also addressed the subject of a wind project and how it would impact a lot of dairy farms.
“People are very concerned about what they’ve put their life into,” McNamara said.
Her presentation was interrupted by Board Chairman Ted Seifert when he felt that she was straying from the point of the gathering.
“This is a budget meeting,” County Administrator Scott Arneson added, reminding citizens that their comments should be limited to the 2012 budget and their property taxes from the proposed levy increase.
Zumbrota resident Barbara Stussy asked commissioners whether there was specific money budgeted to defend county ordinances. Stussy was one of many citizens at a Belle Creek Town Board meeting Monday that was under the impression that more than $200,000 was allotted to Goodhue County Attorney Stephen Betcher to defend ordinances.
In the wind litigation, Betcher said he has spent about $5,000 from a land-use fund to pay for copying and filing documents, but hasn’t received approval from the board to spend any more than that.
“That fund that’s being referred to is not for defense of ordinances,” he explained. “It’s for cost of cleanup associated with some of these ordinances that we have.”
No other citizens voiced concerns at the truth-in-taxation meeting. County commissioners will set Goodhue County’s final levy Dec. 20.
Kline proposes end to energy grant program
Dec 03, 2011
By Brett Boese
The Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN
RED WING — Minnesota Congressman John Kline has sent a letter to his colleagues on Capitol Hill proposing to end a grant program for renewable energy, and he cites the controversy surrounding the proposed AWA Goodhue wind project in Goodhue County.
Section 1603 of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — commonly called the stimulus package — has provided cash grants to promote green-energy projects around the country since early 2009. That program was extended an extra year in December 2010, and some are pushing to do the same thing this month. Kline is not among them.
His recent letter urges the Committee on Ways and Means in Washington, D.C., to allow the grant program to expire at the end of this month, and he has received "some positive inquiries from other offices," according to Yelena Vaynberg, Kline's legislative director.
It was written in direct response to a letter supporting a second extension of Section 1603 co-signed by 23 influential members in American politics, including Rep. Jesse Jackson and Judge Andrew Napolitano.
"While the goal of the program is to increase the use of renewable energy, including wind, I have escalating concerns about the unintended consequences of the program," Kline wrote. "For example, in Minnesota, a wind developer is working to establish a farm with more than 50 wind turbines despite strong concerns vocalized by hundreds of residents the program is slated to serve. Furthermore, given current budget constraints, we simply cannot afford taxpayer-funded government subsidies that offer inconclusive results."
U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, a Democratic from New Jersey, wrote the letter that prompted Kline's reply. In Holt's letter, he says allowing Section 1603 to expire will shrink funding for renewable energy projects, such as wind, by 52 percent and eliminate thousands of jobs.
Kline, a Republican, counters by calling the program part of "the failed stimulus bill." Estimates from WindAction.org, a website "dedicated to providing information on industrial wind energy to enable communities and government officials to make informed decisions," say Section 1603 has provided $10 billion to $20 billion to renewable energy projects since 2009, mostly to industrial wind projects around the country.
The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service says the solar industry expects to install a record 1 gigawatt of energy-producing units in 2010, but the CRS projects wind installation to fall to 5 gigawatts — or half of what was installed in 2009.
Part of that decline can be explained through the situation in Goodhue County, where the 78-megawatt AWA Goodhue wind project near Zumbrota has generated concerns about siting. The project finally got a permit this fall from the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission after more than two years of contentious debate and discussion, but three groups opposed to the 48-turbine project, including the township where it will be sited, recently decided to take the matter to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.
National Wind, the project developer, has repeatedly said it intends to begin construction in 2011, which would make it eligible to receive more than $50 million in federal funding through Section 1603. However, legal counsel Christy Brusven said at a public meeting Monday night that the project has not finalized financing for the $180 million project.
As a permit condition from the PUC, AWA Goodhue must develop an Avian and Bat Protection Plan that must be approved by the PUC before construction can begin. National Wind's November newsletter said the plan is expected to be ready this month.
Multiple sources, including Belle Creek Town Board chairman Chad Ryan, also have said that some project participants are unhappy with the wind contracts they signed years ago, though their legal options appear to be limited due to a nondisclosure agreement in the contracts.
National Wind reps have repeatedly declined interview requests since September so it's unclear what the latest construction time line is, or how the loss of Section 1603 would impact their plans.
Belle Creek township to appeal wind farm decision
November 30, 2011 by Elizabeth Baier
Minnesota Public Radio
Earlier this week, the Belle Creek township board in southeastern Minnesota voted to appeal a decision by the Public Utilities Commission that allows a developer to proceed with a $179 million wind project near Red Wing.
"People have not listened to us. Everybody's ignored us," Belle Creek Board Chair Chad Ryan said. "They're just plain ignoring what the people want."
Read full article.
Opponents of wind farm ask high school club to study impact on eagles
Nov 30, 2011
By Brett Boese
The Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN
RED WING — As lawyers prepare to argue the merits of siting a wind turbine project in Goodhue County, opponents of the project have turned to a surprising source for an outside assessment of how the project might affect local eagle populations — the Science Club at Lourdes High School in Rochester.
Rochester resident Mary Hartman, a vocal wind project critic, explained the situation during the club's after-school meeting last week. Forty Lourdes students voted to take on the project. They'll focus specifically on bald eagle and golden eagle observation, analysis and documentation for what could turn into a multi-year plan.
"The kids seem pretty excited about the fact that they'll be able to contribute to the community aspect," said Dave Jenson, a biology teacher who is also head of the Science Club. "Bald eagles are majestic and eagles are our mascot, so that's kind of neat."
The science club will dive into a controversial issue.
National Wind is in the final stages of developing a 78-megawatt wind project covering 32,000 acres between Zumbrota and Goodhue. Getting the permit for the project from the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission took two years, and the process has been bitter and has divided neighbors and relatives.
Setbacks from dwellings have been a central issue during the debate, but protecting wildlife has become a more critical component recently. There were complaints that environmental assessments submitted by Westwood Professional Services, hired by National Wind, were inadequate, and the Public Utilities Commission made a plan to protect birds and bats a condition of the site permit.
National Wind's November newsletter to project participants said the avian study is expected to be completed in December. The study must be approved by the PUC before construction can begin, but beginning the process before 2012 appears to be critical. National Wind legal counsel Christy Brusven said Monday that financing for the $180 million project is not final, yet the project would receive more than $50 million in state and federal aid if construction begins in 2011.
"Regardless of whether or not wind turbines go into this area, the kids have a really great opportunity to get some hands-on experience here," Hartman said. "If wind turbines go in, they could be the first to have data on eagle impacts."
The Lourdes Science Club spent 2010 studying the abstract idea of global climate change, and Jenson said this project will require a more intimate approach for his students. Jenson expects to break them into small groups so they can focus on different aspects of the project: writing grant requests, creating and maintaining a web page, conducting field work and, potentially, monitoring a live cam focused on an active nest, to name a few.
The science club will meet again in about two weeks, but the eagle project is unlikely to start until February.
The club will do eagle observation this year no matter what, Jenson said. "We're hoping for the future that we have kids involved and interested in it so it might be a year-round thing if we've purchased equipment. It's not really defined yet what it will turn in to."
Published November 30, 2011
Belle Creek moves forward with appeal in wind case
By: Regan Carstensen, The Republican Eagle
Residents gather at the Belle Creek Town Board meeting Monday night to hear whether the township will file an appeal against the approval of a wind farm in Goodhue County. The board voted to go ahead with an appeal.
At a specially scheduled meeting Monday night, the Belle Creek Town Board voted to appeal the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission’s decision to allow a 78-megawatt wind farm in Goodhue County.
Citizens stuffed themselves into available chairs and crowded in the back of the Belle Creek Town Hall to voice their opinions prior to the board’s vote. Many of them encouraged board members to appeal, explaining their concerns surrounding wind turbines in the area.
Rochester resident Mary Hartman has been studying the possible effects of wind turbines on raptors and bats. “You have a remarkable ecosystem here and I think it’s worth fighting for,” she told the board.
Hartman also said the wind project isn’t necessary for the state to reach its goal of getting 25 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2025.
“This whole project is not about needs, it’s about wants,” Hartman said. “You need to tell this developer no in any way you can.”
Representatives from developer AWA Goodhue Wind and its legal counsel were at the Belle Creek Board meeting. Attorney Christy Brusven suggested that the board consider how much money an appeal would cost before jumping into it.
Local resident Larry Fox agreed. He asked Belle Creek Board Chair Chad Ryan how much the township has already spent to fight the wind project.
“I would guesstimate we’re probably $15,000 — probably in the ball park of that,” Ryan said, adding that an appeal would likely cost another $15,000 to $25,000.
“Where do you draw the line here? I’m sure they’ve got a lot deeper pockets than you guys do,” Fox said, referring to AWA Goodhue.
Still, the board was less concerned with finances and more focused on continuing its fight, regardless of the fact Belle Creek no longer has Goodhue County fighting alongside it.
“Nobody’s been on our side,” Ryan said. “It’s very disappointing when you have a county that can’t stand up for themselves.”
A lot of opposition A handful of participating landowners that signed with AWA Goodhue to be part of the project recently decided they want out of their contracts, and several of them made sure the Belle Creek Board knew about their intentions.
Ryan said he had received many phone calls from participating landowners Monday and exactly half told him to appeal while the other half asked him not to appeal.
“That throws a huge flag up,” Ryan said. “How can 50 percent of the participants want to appeal?”
The final decision to appeal was approved with votes from Ryan and Supervisor Richard Buck. Jim Hadler, the board’s third member, abstained from the vote because he has signed a contract with AWA Goodhue to participate in the project.
Recall petiton being formed to oust Goodhue County Commissioner
Area News 11/30/11
By: Regan Carstensen, Pierce County Herald
Regan Carstensen is a reporter for the Red Wing Republican-Eagle.
Some residents hope to get Goodhue County Commissioner Richard Samuelson removed from office after the county decided not to appeal in a wind case that will affect Samuelson’s district.
A petition to recall Samuelson is being organized by Goodhue resident Steve Groth, who ran against Samuelson for the District 2 County Commissioner seat last year.
Samuelson has held the seat since 1994 and had never been challenged until the 2010 primary when Groth and three other candidates vied for the position. Groth garnered 11 percent of the vote while the incumbent received 41 percent.
Because of the Goodhue County Board’s recent decision not to appeal the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission’s approval of a 78-megawatt wind project, citizens opposed to the project said Samuelson isn’t doing his job to protect District 2.
“You’re not representing the people you were elected to represent,” Goodhue resident Marie McNamara told him at a Belle Creek Town Board meeting Monday night.
When county commissioners voted on the appeal at their Nov. 15 meeting, Samuelson was absent and the vote resulted in a 2-2 tie. Since there was no majority, the motion to continue with the appeal failed — although that would have still been the outcome with the fifth commissioner present.
“I’ll be honest with you. If I had been there, I’d have voted not to appeal,” Samuelson said, addressing the high cost of going to appellate court and the tight budget the county is already facing. “Our money is going to run out.”
“Are you guys not willing to stand up for any ordinance that you have?” Belle Creek Town Board Chair Chad Ryan asked.
Samuelson held firm to his concern over the costs of filing an appeal, replying, “I can’t take the taxpayers’ money.”
“In my 13 years in the office I’ve never actually heard of anybody in Goodhue County actually being recalled,” said Amy Hove of the Goodhue County Auditor/Treasurer’s office.
Disappointed citizens are going to see what they can do about that.
“We have to do something here to hold these leaders accountable,” Groth said.
In order for the petition to be submitted to the state’s appellate court, Hove said it needs to have signatures from at least 25 percent of the registered voters in District 2 based on how many voted in the 2010 election.
That means 986 people are needed to stand behind the petition, although Hove said it’s safer to surpass that number.
“You need to make sure you get more than that 986 because, quite often, people think they’re registered — they think they’re in that district — and they aren’t,” she explained.
The recall petition is still being developed, but Groth said the process of getting signatures will begin next week.
“We have combined efforts of help … going door to door.”