Grundy Co. wind ordinance recodification stalls again after hearing

From left to right, Grundy County Supervisors Mark Schildroth, Barb Smith, Vic Vandehaar, Lucas Halverson, and Heidi Nederhoff at the public hearing Tuesday for the recodification of the county’s development ordinance. PHOTO BY NICK BAUR

It was a packed house the evening of Feb. 7 at the Grundy County Courthouse in Grundy Center, where the Board of Supervisors held a public hearing regarding the recodification of the county’s development ordinance.

The board has been wrestling with the recodification of the development ordinance for nearly a year following several public hearings and meetings by the board and Planning and Zoning Commission throughout 2022, which saw community members give remarks specifically aimed at restricting the parameters for the future development of wind turbines in Grundy County.

A suggested change lobbied for during the previous hearings was the increase of the setback requirement for turbine development from residential dwellings.

The original development ordinance allotted 1,200 feet for turbine development from residential dwellings. The recommended changes, which came before the Board of Supervisors Tuesday, would see this number increase to a distance five times the size of the constructed turbine. With standard turbines averaging approximately 500 feet from base to turbine tip, the setback would increase to roughly 2,500 feet from residential dwellings.

Additional verbiage for noise restrictions was also included in the recommended changes on top of the original noise limit of 60 decibels, adding that the measurement will be taken “from the exterior wall of residence from which the sound is being measured.”

Other changes add specific actions required by turbine permit owners in regards to developing and enacting decommissioning plans for the machines should they be discontinued, with many provisions taken from the Worth County turbine development ordinance.

Finally, per the recommended changes, any turbine permits whose ownership is to be transferred must receive written approval from the Board of Supervisors.

Yet, despite these changes embedded in the ordinance at the behest of area residents, the public hearing on Tuesday presented another opportunity for residents to continue to press for further restrictions on future turbine development.

Particularly, some residents felt there should be an additional rule limiting turbine construction on land with a Corn Suitability Rating (CSR) of 70 or higher in the interest of preserving agriculture in the county. CSR is a way to measure potential soil productivity of farmland based on soil profile, slope characteristics, and weather conditions and is an index ranging from 0 to 100, with CSR values of 100 being the most productive.

“What is Grundy County’s greatest asset? That is our farmland. Putting in the CSR restriction, I think, is a really big point,” said Marc Reifenrath of Parkersburg. “Let’s not ruin that for future generations. They’re not making more of it, that’s one thing for certain. Let’s protect the gold that we have in our black dirt here and put some kind of CSR restriction in there. I think that would really be a good addition for what you guys are trying to do.”

Furthermore, others felt there needed to be additional language in the ordinance requiring wind energy companies to publicize their plans for possible projects to a greater extent.

“Half-page ads, a couple weeks in the newspaper as well as postcards that have to be sent within a two mile of the proposed zone that someone is coming to look at to solicit – if those aren’t done then it’s null and void,” said Crystal Klahsen of Aplington, pointing towards several provisions within the neighboring Butler County development ordinance. “I just feel like their plan is very protective of the county, and obviously, you guys are vested and want to be protective of the county too. It would be something worth looking at and considering.”

While many spoke at the hearing in favor of further restrictions in the development ordinance, a handful of participants felt the ordinance would hurt the county rather than help it. Specifically, the setback limit of five times the height of the turbine was called a “poison pill” for wind energy development.

“We believe that good policy creates good projects, and a good policy is a good county ordinance that holds a developer to make a good project that everybody wins. Part of that is the setback distance,” said Mike Carberry of Johnson County, who serves as Vice President of the Iowa Wind Energy Association. “Mid-America, which has 33,000 turbines and is the largest producer of wind in the country for any utility, said that if they had a 2,500 feet setback, they would have been able to install one percent of their current fleet in Iowa. So that’s 33 turbines. 85 counties in Iowa are losing population, people are moving out, but they are not taking the roads and bridges with them. The remaining taxpayers have to pay for those roads and bridges… Wind is a tax generator. It’s a job creator. It is a property right, and it doesn’t harm people.”

Carberry added that a setback limit of two times the height of the turbine has become an effective middle ground between landowners and wind energy developers.

Following the public hearing, Supervisor Mark Schildroth motioned to vote on the development ordinance as written, but the motion was dead in the water after failing to receive a second. Therefore, the ordinance will be sent back again to the Planning and Zoning Commission to receive further revisions before coming back to the board for a vote at a later date.

“I would like to thank the Planning and Zoning Commission for all their work on this. I know it took a lot of time and effort. I would also like to thank you folks for participating,” said Supervisor Vic Vandehaar. “We don’t always agree with everybody, we never will, but this is democracy at work. We talk back and forth and nobody drew any blood — that’s great!”