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Divisive Goodhue County wind debate nears end

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From left, Marie McNamara, Kristi and Bob Rosenquist are working to educate the public about the complications of wind power in Goodhue County.
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ZUMBROTA — Marie McNamara vividly recalls attending her first community meeting about the proposed New Era wind project — then called Goodhue Wind — in the fall of 2008. It was held at the Goodhue Lions Club and attended by dozens of people, almost none of whom she recognized.

That was her first red flag.

When her list of 10 questions went largely unanswered, she expressed frustration to a nearby project investor. McNamara, a Goodhue-area farmer, said the man responded by asking if she was going to be "a problem."

The answer to that question quickly became obvious. Project developers now have spent more than $15 million fruitlessly seeking to construct the $180 million project, and their efforts have been thwarted largely because of actions initiated by Bruce and Marie McNamara.

After developers were unable to assuage their concerns, the McNamaras created Goodhue Wind Truth, an opposition group. Then came the Coalition for Sensible Siting, another local opposition group.As the groups' numbers grew, subcommittees were created to focus on specific concerns, such as noise, wildlife impacts, setbacks, statute language and information dissemination.

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In addition to investing thousands of volunteer hours on those topics, the group also has spent six figures on legal fees.

"We get a lot of phone calls from around the country now looking for help," said Mary Hartman, another opposition group leader. "You have to fact check (the industry). When you do, you're just like, 'Wow, it doesn't wash.'"

The controversy often pitted neighbor against neighbor, but the battle appears near an end. New Era recently missed two deadlines with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, which is expected to hold permit revocation hearings in October or November. That could put an end to an unprecedented five-year battle that's included five lawsuits.

"It's like tearing a scab off in our community," Marie McNamara said of the contentious debate. "I think there were a couple times where it went to the brink where (neighbors) could have done the wrong thing. But they didn't. They were very respectful."

Bob and Kristi Rosenquist, of rural Zumbrota, didn't become involved until early 2010, but their efforts were felt immediately. They were the first people in Minnesota to follow the extensive paper trail that led to Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens, who became the project's investor in 2009.

Kristi Rosenquist has become so entwined in the discussion about renewable energy policies that she recently was nominated for the Vernon K. Krieble Foundation's Unsung Hero Award , where the winner receives a cash prize of $25,000. She's made trips to Washington, D.C., to coordinate with other concerned citizens across the country and has fielded inquiries from parties as distant as Australia.

Minnesota has the seventh-most installed wind energy in the United States at 2,987 installed megawatts through the second quarter of 2013, according to advocacy group Wind on the Wires. Joe Sullivan, Wind on the Wires' regional policy manager, said that the "resource is so vast," with so much "low hanging fruit" that the industry will continue to expand for years to come.

But some local legislators feel the New Era project should be viewed as a lesson learned as the state considers continued expansion.

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"This was just a project that had all the red flags flying, and they just kept pushing it," Minnesota Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said. "Nobody was ready to step up and say, 'We should stop this one and go elsewhere.'"

Sen. Matt Schmit, D-Red Wing, echoed Kelly's concerns.

"To me, this is not a political issue," Schmit said. "Regardless of whether I'm a Democrat or Republican, or anywhere in between, it's important to answer questions as they arise. We shouldn't be pushing projects forward that shouldn't be moving forward."

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