Belle Creek Township to challenge wind project in court
GOODHUE — Monday's decision by the Belle Creek Town Board to file a legal appeal against the AWA Goodhue wind project could extend the battle over renewable energy in Goodhue County by another year.
National Wind, the project developer, applied for a site permit with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission for the 78-megawatt project in 2009, but the permitting process has been contested by two local government bodies and two opposition groups; a typical project in Minnesota is permitted within six to 12 months, while this 32,000-acre project required more than two years to receive its permit.
When the PUC completed its process by rejecting four reconsideration requests for its site permit on Nov. 10, critics took the issue to appellate court. The six-rotor diameter setback approved by the PUC was about 1,000 feet less than what the county ordinance required and 100 feet more than the wind company was offering. Concerns about wildlife impact and local control have been also been raised.
Goodhue County declined to make an appeal on Oct. 15 despite adopting one of the state's most stringent wind ordinances in October 2010.
"It's very disappointing when you have a county that can't stand up for themselves," said Belle Creek Town Board chairman Chad Ryan, who was forced to pause for around 10 seconds as nearly all of the 70-person, standing-room only crowd responded with applause. "It was never meant that townships should stand in place for a county, but I just don't think Belle Creek has any other option. We've been dealt a bad hand from the beginning. It feels like no one is listening, especially at the PUC. They're just like, 'Go away.'"
Ryan and Rick Buck voted to file the appeal, while Jim Hadler, who is an AWA Goodhue project participant, abstained.
Ryan said exactly half of the AWA Goodhue project participants who called him about Monday's vote urged him to move forward with the appeal. While none of those people can speak on the record due to contractual obligations, Minneapolis attorney Dan Schleck previously confirmed that he's representing a number of farmers in the area as rumors swirl about citizens unhappy with the commitment they made to National Wind years ago.
Belle Creek has spent about $15,000 fighting this development already, and the upcoming legal challenge could add another $25,000 to that tab. Ryan said the matter might not be completed for another 12 months, though it's unclear if the township would request a stay of the PUC site permit during that time, which would prevent construction until the matter is resolved.
Goodhue Wind Truth and the Coalition for Sensible Siting, two citizen opposition groups, also plan to file an appeal.
National Wind legal counsel Christy Brusven urged the town board to decline the appeal during Monday's public comment period — asking them to continue talks about a road-use agreement instead — but she declined comment afterward.
Afterward, state Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, complimented the township board.
"I'm pretty impressed with the leadership," said Kelly, who has been trying, unsuccessfully, to initiate renewable energy reform at the state level. "This is the lowest level of government, the grass roots level, where everything you do affects your neighbor. It's pretty uncommon that a county won't stand up for its ordinance but a township would.
"I was pretty disappointed when the county decided not to appeal. I hope the example of this board puts the county in position to reconsider."
The Goodhue County Board meets again Thursday in Red Wing, which would still allow it time to meet the Dec. 15 deadline to file an appeal. Ryan plans to attend, but county commissioner Richard Samuelson said he doesn't expect the board to reopen the matter.
Steve Groth, a critic of the wind project who launched an unsuccessful bid for a seat on the county board during the last election cycle, announced plans to start a petition to have Samuelson recalled. Samuelson — who represents District 2, which is where the AWA Goodhue project has been proposed — defeated Cannon Falls resident Jeff Hommedahl a year ago by 86 votes, or 2.1 percent.
Samuelson was the deciding vote when Goodhue County adopted its new wind ordinance a month before polling. However, weeks after being re-elected, he wrote a letter to the PUC stating he'd support a lesser setback in a move that rankled Groth, Hommedahl and others. That change of heart — Samuelson called his initial vote "a mistake" at the next board meeting — came after meeting with Mark Ward, a Mesa Power executive who works closely with Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens.
Groth needs about 950 signatures, or 25 percent of voters in the district, to launch a successful recall.
Samuelson, who was also criticized by Ryan Monday night, expressed no remorse for his actions.
"I'm not ashamed that I did that, but it seems like nowadays no one wants to compromise. Other than that, my hands are clean."