Published June 2nd, 2021 at 6:00 AM
FRANKFORT, Kansas— Austin Cline is the third generation to farm his family’s land in Marshall County.
His home, added onto many times over, sits at the edge of 1,000 acres where he raises cattle and bales hay.
From his driveway, he has a more than 180-degree view of neighbors’ land and native prairie grass. But by next year, he expects the horizon to be dominated by commercial wind turbines, some as close as 4,000 feet.
He and his neighbors will be in the shadow of the 300-megawatt Irish Creek Wind Farm, which is set to begin operation late this year. Neighbors who didn’t sell land to the wind farm developer, NextEra Energy Resources, are dreading the day the towering structures appear, erupting from their treasured horizon.
Right now, Cline’s home points east. He can see for miles.
“I like looking at the good, clean hills,” Cline said. “Native grass and the native Flint Hills is a site of beauty.”
NextEra, headquartered in Florida, is the world’s largest renewable energy generator. It already has half a dozen wind farms in Kansas, primarily in the south central and southwestern parts of the state.
It also has one wind farm in Missouri.
Kansas was early to the wind rush, dotting the state with turbines that in 2019 beat coal for the first time in generating the largest chunk of the state’s electricity. In 2020, 43% of the state’s generation came from wind, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
By comparison, 70% of Missouri’s generation comes from coal. Only 9% comes from all its renewable sources — wind, hydropower, biomass and solar — combined.
Last year, NextEra added 120 turbines in neighboring Nemaha County, Kansas, surrounding Centralia and Corning.
That neighboring wind farm, which began operations in 2020, was a warning to some residents of Marshall County, who say the looming turbines, blinking red lights, engine humming and whooshing sounds when the blades rotate past the turbine’s tower will diminish their quality of life.
The company plans up to 100 turbines in Marshall County. Developers say the wind farm will bring 300 construction jobs and 12 to 15 permanent jobs to the community along with $50 million in payments to landowners who have turbines on their property and $40 million in county property taxes over the next 30 years.
In Kansas, the company is helping “fuel the state’s economic growth and quality of life and moving our country toward energy independence,” NextEra says on its website.
“The Irish Creek Wind project has received tremendous support in Marshall County,” Kennedy Conlan, a company spokesperson said in an email. “The project is providing significant benefits for the local community, including approximately $40 million in property tax revenue over the life of the project. That’s funding for local school districts, first responders, and other essential services in the community.”
Residents like Cline in Marshall County and parts of Kansas were behind a push earlier this year to regulate wind development at the state level in Kansas. Right now, it’s up to counties and cities to decide how close to residents’ homes and property lines developers can build turbines. In Marshall County, where there are no zoning rules, the county’s commission was left to negotiate those setbacks, density and other agreements with NextEra.
According to the county’s development agreement with NextEra, turbines can’t exceed 500 feet in height. They must be at least a mile from city limits and 1.1 times their height — 550 feet — from the property line of any non-participating landowner.
The proposed changes to state regulations didn’t make it far. A Senate committee heard days of testimony but didn’t take a vote.
But some counties in both Kansas and Missouri have moved to restrict or ban wind development.
Proponents of Senate Bill 279 say it is necessary to protect the rights of rural landowners who aren’t part of the project but will be affected by their neighbors’ decisions.
“You’re asking people who live in a community … to put up with the change of their lifestyle so a company can make money,” said Gayla Randel, a Marshall County resident.
Opponents of the bill, including energy industry representatives and environmentalists, say it would virtually halt wind development in Kansas. They point out that participating landowners have the right to do business on their own ground.
Kimberly Gencur Svaty, a lobbyist representing the Kansas Advanced Power Alliance, said she thought the wind energy industry did a good job trying to ensure that both participating and non-participating landowners are treated fairly.
“If view is the issue, there are no protections that will be put in place for any form of development if you just don’t want to look at it,” she said.
Marshall County residents aren’t alone in their concerns about commercial wind.
An effort to block a wind farm in Reno County in south central Kansas is currently tied up in court. Most of the Flint Hills is protected under a moratorium on wind development. McPherson County in central Kansas has issued a ban on wind development.
McPherson County Commission Chairman Keith Becker said residents in his county were worried about the noise and shadows from the turbines. He said the developers were already leasing ground, but he heard an outcry from the community.
“The people have spoken, and I just felt like … it was best that we would not have something like that in our county,” Becker said.
Gencur Svaty said a handful of counties in eastern Kansas, particularly those that are more densely populated, had adopted more stringent regulations or issued a moratorium on wind development. But she said she didn’t see a trend toward more restrictions.
“In Kansas, we’ve built four new projects this year. We’ve repowered one. And there’s one project that there’s been some anxiety about,” Gencur Svaty said, referencing the Marshall County project.
Across the state line in mid-Missouri, Boone County is considering regulations renewable energy proponents say would make building a wind farm impossible.
The county’s planning and zoning commission has been taking public comment on regulations, including a requirement that wind turbines be no more than 400 feet tall. Tim Optiz, general counsel for Renew Missouri, which advocates for clean energy, said that would make development impossible because most modern turbines are far taller.
The proposed regulations also require turbines be placed at least 1,750 feet from roads and property lines.
“My view is it would foreclose any potential development in Boone County,” Optiz said. “It would probably foreclose most development in counties throughout the state, just given the inclusion of setbacks from public roads and the turbine heights.”
Optiz said he hadn’t seen much pushback statewide in Missouri. The efforts to regulate in Boone have been recent, but the state has added huge amounts of wind power in recent years.
“It’s disappointing that people will be convinced by nonsense out there, and I think it comes down to they’ve seen their landscape look a certain way and they don’t want it to change,” Optiz said.
Driving through rural Marshall County, there are stretches without any buildings at all.
Standing in Cline’s driveway, off a dirt road southwest of Frankfort, there’s hardly a sound besides birds chirping and wind blowing the prairie grass.
Residents who oppose Irish Creek say the stillness is why they chose to live in rural Marshall County. They’re worried about what they’ve seen in neighboring Nemaha County, where turbines dominate the landscape within minutes of the county line.
From Greg Allen’s home in Nemaha County, he can hear the constant humming of the wind turbine and the whoosh each time a blade passes the top of the tower. The closest turbine to his house is about 3,500 feet.
“My standing joke is I don’t have to put Christmas lights up anymore,” he said.
The disturbance is a common complaint among rural residents who live close to wind farms, who worry about adverse health effects from the noise and blinking lights.
NextEra says properly sited wind turbines do not pose a threat to human or animal health.
The Marshall County residents proposed the Kansas Legislature enact statewide rules for wind farms, including a required 1-mile setback from the property lines of any non-participating landowners and a 1.5-mile setback from homes.
Only one turbine could be built per square mile. Developers would have to notify every landowner in the wind farm footprint of their plans and provide sound studies to show what steps they were taking to mitigate the effects on residents.
Developers would be required to use lighting systems that are activated when radar detects a plane in the airspace rather than have lights blinking constantly.
Proponents of the legislation say non-participating landowners aren’t given a voice in decisions about wind farms that will affect their surroundings and, potentially, their property values.
But opponents say that would infringe on the property rights of landowners who choose to lease their ground for wind turbines.
Wind industry representatives and environmentalists said the policy was unworkable.
Alan Claus Anderson, vice chairman of the energy practice group at Polsinelli in Kansas City, Missouri, said in testimony to a Kansas Senate committee that the bill is “not attempting to impose reasonable requirements on the siting of wind turbines.”
“It would be completely disingenuous to talk about this bill as anything other than the end of the renewable energy industry in our state, a usurpation of the rights of local communities, schools, Kansas businesses, industry employees and a complete taking of a natural resource from property owners,” Anderson said.
Opponents said the across-the-board approach wasn’t right when other counties in Kansas have more enthusiastically embraced wind development. Population density varies among Kansas counties, and those counties should have the right to decide what regulations are right for them.
Residents of Marshall County, including Carol Hull, viewed it as a lifeline to help avoid the changing landscape.
“The peace and quiet of the neighborhood is going to be gone,” Hull said.
Allison Kite is a data reporter with a focus on the environment and agriculture. This story first appeared on the Missouri Independent, a nonprofit news operations covering Missouri state government and politics as part of States Newsroom.