PRINCETON — Gibson County Commissioners were told Tuesday night that half a million people in the Tri-State area depend on their leadership to enact zoning to protect a Doppler radar tower's integrity from interference by proposed wind turbines.
On the other hand, they were told to be prepared for a fight if they try to establish zoning in the county.
Public discussion of a proposed industrial wind turbine farm within Gibson County continued Tuesday night, but commissioners weren't prepared to take any actions.
E.ON Climate & Renewables, which is to be acquired by the Germany-based energy company RWE, told commissioners in March that the company is either completing or negotiating private property lease agreements for about 9,500 to 10,000 acres in Gibson County and would like to have agreements for about 2,000 to 3,000 more acres, for development of a wind farm.
Representatives told commissioners in March that more meteorological and environmental studies and permitting processes are ahead over the next two to three years before a wind farm layout is finalized. The proposed wind farm also includes private property in Posey County, which has zoning ordinances.
Commissioners learned this summer from National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration/National Weather Service Radar program manager Jessica Schultz, NWS meteorologists James Alton and Rick Shanklin and other NWS experts that wind turbines constructed within an 11-mile radius of the radar tower near Owensville would degrade the radar capability. Schultz reported that NWS highly discourages developers from building anything within 2 1/2 miles of the radar tower. But, the agencies have no legal authority to prohibit projects that might interfere with the tower's data-gathering ability.
GibcoWind member Kent Maurer asked commissioners Steve Bottoms, Gerald Bledsoe and Mary Key Tuesday whether they agree that the wind turbines threaten the accuracy of the radar, and that the responsibility for protecting the integrity of the weather data is a local community issue.
Bledsoe told the packed gallery at Tuesday night's meeting, "I'm 100 percent along with not letting the turbines come in because of interfering with the Doppler."
Maurer asked commissioners, who were earlier encouraged to look into developing a safety ordinance to prohibit locating the turbines near the Doppler tower, if they agreed that land use planning (zoning) is the only tool that could regulate location of wind turbines here.
"That is my understanding," Key told him.
"Posey County has zoning and they haven't kept them out," Bledsoe said.
"Every legal opinion that I have heard says that there's only one thing. Comprehensive planning is the only control that we could have," Bottoms said. He told the group that he spoke with state and federal lawmakers, trying to gain some understanding as to why NWS has no authority to protect its Doppler tower. "From all the legal experts I've heard, they say the only thing is a comprehensive plan."
Bottoms said he's interested in the outcome of Posey County's zoning impact on the proposed wind farm and wants to learn what E.ON plans to do there.
Key told the group that learning about the project and ramifications takes time. "They're here. We can't do something retroactively. I don't know if it's to that stage," she said.
Maurer said he believes that reviving the county's study from two years ago of comprehensive planning is an option until E.ON breaks ground on the project in Gibson County.
Key said that while commissioners have no authority to regulate land use without zoning, they do have some authority regarding use and condition of county roads. "They haven't even approached us on that," she reported. "Doppler is a big concern, a huge concern," she acknowledged.
"It affects more than a half-million people," Maurer said of the radar towers coverage area in southwest Indiana, southeastern Illinois and Kentucky. "...so there's a lot of people looking at you for leadership."
He appealed to commissioners to revisit zoning, noting that while he wasn't interested in the issue when the county studied land-use planning two years ago, "Now there's a safety issue, and hopefully everyone will see that it's needed...for the protection of all concerned."
Bottoms said learning that the wind turbines could affect the integrity of the Doppler was a shock, and commissioners have some concerns about property setbacks where turbines are located. "We're definitely trying to learn more," he said. "I do think it's bigger than just the people of Gibson County."
"What we do know is that we are losing time," Maurer told commissioners. "It seems like there is an urgency here. The longer we wait, the better the chance we lose our Doppler...Please make this an urgent issue for a comprehensive plan."
Les Kiesel told commissioners, "The clock is ticking," suggesting that if Posey County's zoning makes turbine sites unfeasible in that county, E.ON could just move more into Gibson County.
Cecil "Bob" Allen asked what E.ON's position is regarding turbines within the radius of the Doppler tower.
Rod Flora, a Newburgh contractor working with E.ON in acquisitions, said "I know Doppler is a concern...E.ON is not going to go inside the red zone (2 1/2 mile radius)." Within the 11-mile radius, he said, E.ON could mitigate some concerns.
"You know you're going to have a fight on your hands if you bring up zoning again," Allen told commissioners, "so go talk to E.ON about the Doppler."
"I'm still learning what the issues are," Bottoms replied.
Various people who did not identify themselves discussed the distance of the 11-mile radius from the tower, which would extend to Princeton, and extend to Wadesville in Posey County. They also offered opinions on whether zoning is appropriate.
"This is all talk and it's good, but we have no authority," Bottoms said.
Bledsoe said shutting down turbines during an approaching storm could still pose a problem for neighboring counties because there would not be data available. "This is not a good thing for Gibson County." He said he also considered more stringent conditions for road bonding, which is one of the few controls the commissioners could exercise.
Kiesel asked Bledsoe to meet again with E.ON representatives. "I will call them but I just imagine they've been down that road," he said.
"E.ON doesn't have to wait here," said Bottoms. "No matter what Posey County does, they (E.ON) can do anything they want here...except regarding road use."
"There's no authority to make them go along with it (keeping turbines out of the 11-mile radius of the radar)," Bledsoe agreed.
"We're all learning," Bottoms said. "We're not just sitting still. I am not against turbines, I agree there's a right place for them..."
"If zoning is the only thing to protect us, we're waiting on you," Kiesel told commissioners. "Delaying it is just giving them time to get it going, then we are SOL."
Bledsoe said he's not sure the people of Gibson County can afford to develop and implement zoning.
"Can you place a dollar value on lives?" Kiesel responded.
Discussion within the crowd continued with comments about zoning's impact on housing, business development and other issues by people who did not identify themselves before commissioners ended the discussion, making no commitment for or against zoning.