Planning Commission advances new wind energy regulations for Douglas County

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The Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission voted 6-3 early Tuesday morning to move forward with a new set of wind energy regulations at the end of a meeting that stretched six hours. 

Monday’s meeting was the culmination of a process that saw multiple drafts of regulations, hours of public comment and multiple marathon meetings, all aimed at creating new guidelines for commercial and personal wind energy developments in Douglas County. 

Commissioners Mike Kelso, Charlie Thomas, Pedro Borroto, Jane Eldredge, David Carttar and Chelsi Hayden voted in favor of the regulations. Commissioners Gary Rexroad, Sharon Ashworth and Prasanth Duvvur voted against. Steve Munch recused himself from the discussion and vote. 

The three commissioners who voted against the regulations did so because they wanted to require smaller setbacks that would have allowed more flexibility for future wind developments. 

Commissioners aimed to balance the need for rigorous regulations that protect Douglas County against the need to allow continued renewable energy development. The result was a set of new regulations with a series of modifications derived from public comments and commission discussion over the last few months. 

“I don’t think we’ve left anything on the table on that discussion,” Rexroad said. “I think everything has been put out and I feel very comfortable that this represents the will of the commission.”

Discussion on Monday was a continuation of the planning commission’s October meeting on the same topic, where commissioners heard from 80 people and a falcon during public comment. Monday’s meeting did not include public comment on the issue, though community members packed the room.

In January 2022, the Planning Commission sought to align wind energy regulations with recently adopted solar regulations, especially for commercial use. By January 2023, a draft was produced. Later, an ad hoc committee revised it into a second draft.

The revised draft mandates extra applicant information, grants zoning authority to the zoning and codes director, requires more noise impact assessment details and more. It includes a 3-mile setback from Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks-managed properties for any commercial wind projects. The updated draft caps turbine height at 600 feet, limits shadow flicker to 15 daily minutes for nonparticipating structures and introduces post-construction restoration requirements.

Commissioners discussed a wide variety of topics over their hourslong meeting Monday including language on legal enforcement and environmental impacts; mitigation plans to ensure the minimization of environment impacts; the definition of native wildlife and historical features and more. 

Commission divided on setback regulations for wind turbines

Members of the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission meet on Jan. 22, 2024 to discuss proposed wind energy regulations. (Screenshot / City of Lawrence YouTube)

The biggest debate between commissioners Monday night was on setbacks. Commissioners were split between setting a setback regulation of 1,500 feet or 2,500 feet from property lines. 

Wind turbine setback regulations determine the minimum distance a wind turbine must be from property lines, buildings, or roads to address safety, noise, and aesthetic concerns. 

By the end of discussion, five commissioners supported a 2,500-foot setback: Kelso, Thomas, Borroto, Eldredge and Hayden. Three commissioners were strong advocates for a 1,500-foot setback: Rexroad, Ashworth and Duvvur. Carttar was split and said he would go with the majority. 

Existing regulations include a setback of 110% of the tower height plus blade length and 1,500 feet from dwellings for commercial wind turbines. Proposed regulations introduce specific setbacks for various features, distinguishing between participating and nonparticipating landowners. Participating landowners, benefiting more from the project, have lower setbacks. 

Commissioners Kelso and Thomas, who were both on the ad hoc committee, said they were in favor of a 2,500-foot setback from property lines. They recounted stories of turbines flinging ice and fiberglass pieces thousands of feet as reasoning for the larger setback. 

Rexroad said he thought 2,500 feet was too large and created too big of a regulatory footprint. He said the risk of many of the incidents being discussed were low, and the commission needed to create regulations that still allowed for development. 

“I can look in the mirror and say, ‘1,500 feet, I know that we’ve mitigated risk. I believe so,’” Rexroad said. “I believe we have, and that’s why I’m supporting that number.”

He said that it felt arbitrary to regulate the possibility of debris from a wind turbine but not debris from other structures hit by storms. 

Duvvur agreed, saying the stories of incidents with wind turbines were a small sample size compared to the thousands of turbines in Kansas that haven’t produced issues. He argued that setting a 2,500-foot setback essentially boxed out the possibility of wind energy in Douglas County. 

“What we’re saying is that as a community our values are that we want to continue getting energy from coal and whatever else we get it from today, instead of something that is demonstrably cleaner,” he said.

Kelso and Thomas stood their ground on a larger setback. Thomas rejected the idea that low risk of a dangerous incident was reason to support a smaller setback, saying that putting any risk onto citizens of Douglas County was “unconscionable.” 

“I don’t think we should be crafting, and I don’t think we are, regulations based on industry standards,” Kelso said. “We have Douglas County standards. And those Douglas County standards are to protect our citizens.”

Borroto said the lack of incidents with current wind turbines might be because they are in less dense areas. Douglas County, one of the most dense counties in Kansas, might be different. 

“I’m a practical person,” Borroto said. “If we have actual data that says wind turbine blades can throw objects up to 2,100 feet, I don’t need anything else. That’s already telling me that any human life at 2,100 feet from the blade is in possible danger.” 

Hayden said she sat between the two proposals: 1,500 feet felt too small but 2,500 feet felt too large. For that reason, she erred toward the larger setback. 

Because of the split commission, Rexroad proposed a dual system, with a 1,500-foot setback from property lines and a 2,500-foot setback from occupied structures.  

But some commissioners remained hesitant to the idea. Kelso and Thomas both expressed concerns that it could create complications for property owners trying to build new occupied structures on their land. 

The text amendment will next advance to the Douglas County Commission for consideration. 

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Cuyler Dunn (he/him), a contributor to The Lawrence Times, is a student at the University of Kansas School of Journalism. He is a graduate of Lawrence High School where he was the editor-in-chief of the school’s newspaper, The Budget, and was named the 2022 Kansas High School Journalist of the Year. Read more of his work for the Times here.

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