A community blown apart? It’s neighbors vs. neighbors

After nearly seven hours of testimony at the Forest Town Hall last Thursday, opponents and supporters of a proposed industrial wind farm in that community could agree on only one thing.

The Highland Wind Farm plan, which seeks to bring 41 500-foot-tall wind turbines to the rural landscape of northeast St. Croix County, is ripping the social fabric of the community apart.

But besides agreeing on that point, the chasm between the backers of the idea and those opposed to it is huge. It only took a few moments on Thursday to realize that.

At the 2 p.m. public hearing session, hosted by the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, more than 40 people were sworn in to offer their input.

Administrative Law Judge Michael Newmark presided over the day’s proceedings. PSC of Wisconsin commissioners listened on a make-shift telephone conference connection as residents, one by one, provided their viewpoint on the matter at hand.

At the 6 p.m. hearing, dozens more local residents added their two-cents-worth to the official record.

Newmark started the day by explaining that the PSC had three potential determinations to choose from when deciding whether to approve Highland Wind Farm’s application.

They can approve it, approve the application with modifications, or deny it, Newmark explained. He noted that public comments can also be submitted by mail, prior to the PSC’s final decision.

There was a fair representation of testimony on both sides of the issue on Thursday.

Ken Bartz kicked off the hearing by asking if land values would be negatively impacted by the construction of wind turbines in the township. He asked how landowners would be compensated if property values dropped as a result of the project.

Bartz, like others, also asked about alleged negative health impacts that people living near industrial wind turbines have reported in recent years. He said he didn’t think wind turbines should be installed in “residential areas” if the jury is still out about possible health impacts.

“Have enough studies been done for the health issue?” he asked.

Matthew Radintz questioned the “lack of community outreach” that occurred prior to the Highland Project getting approval to proceed by the Town of Forest Board. He said neighbors who would be impacted by the project were not notified of the plans until after the town officials had approved it.

He said the proposed wind farm does not comply with the town’s comprehensive plan, which suggests that no large industrial facilities be constructed in the town (unless it’s in the hamlet of Forest proper) and that the current rural character of the community be maintained.

“This project does not belong or fit in our community,” he said.

Brenda Salseg, a member of the Forest Voice, a citizen group organized to fight against the Highland project, said most residents are not opposed to wind energy. They support alternative energies, but are against improper site selection for industrial wind turbines, she explained.

People living near similar wind turbines, Salseg said, “are suffering” and have been forced to move from their homes.

She said low-frequency sound, “shadow flicker” caused by the sun striking the turning blades and stray voltage are among the causes for declining health for some people.

Salseg pleaded with the PSC commissioners to “make the right decision” and “pull back the curtain” on an industry that is chasing government subsidies and not looking out for the wellbeing of community members.

Rick Steinberger said he is concerned that nearby turbines would reduce his family’s quality of life, noting that potential health impacts from low-frequency sound and shadow flicker are real.

“What we can’t see can harm you,” he said.

He urged the PSC to deny the Emerging Energies’ application.

“If the PSC is going to err, err on the side of safety,” he said.

Teresa Wilson lamented the fact that the controversy has caused “irreparable damage” to the community. Relationships between neighbors, family members and church members have been strained as a result of the ongoing debate, she explained.

“For Emerging Energies, this is strictly a financial matter,” she said. “Just because something is legal doesn’t make it right. Forest is not the place for this project.”

Dennis Eggert agreed, saying the “promise of some money” has ruined Forest.

“Please stop this project and let our township heal,” he pleaded.

Alan Warner, 80, and a 55-year resident of the Town of Forest, was the first to rise in support of the plan. He said he’d like to see more clean energy developed in the nation.

Douglas Karau, former town supervisor, said town residents were never intentionally kept in the dark related to the wind farm approval process. He said the landowners who have agreed to host turbines on their property “have a right to diversify their production” and start harvesting the wind.

“It’s an agricultural production unit,” he said of the turbines. “Everybody doesn’t have to have it. It’s their own individual decision.”

Karau said there’s “a lot of hype” related to the negative health impacts of wind turbines, but no clear health effects have been documented related to wind turbines during the industry’s 30-year history.

“There’s a lot of scare tactics,” he said.

Rita Buhr said the town’s landscape will change if the wind turbines come, but it’s not unlike a century ago when settlers cleared trees to convert land into fields. She supported the idea of renewable energy sources, she said, and “harvesting of the wind.”

Larry McNamara said sometimes progress comes through sacrifice. He suggested that promoting wind energy was a good thing and Forest needs to step up and do its part.

Not only would the project help the nation become more energy independent, he said, the Highland Project will allow some farmers to keep their farms together so they don’t have to be parceled off for housing developments. The payments producers receive from hosting turbines would allow that to happen, he noted.

Mark Tellijohn agreed, noting that payments farmers will receive will help them pay for rising health insurance costs and increasing production costs.

“This is good for our nation,” he added. “Throughout our history, people have been frightened of change. To me, what’s frightening is no change.”

Carol Johnson, who said she will not be a turbine host or personally benefit from the Highland project, said she’s excited about the economic impact and job opportunities that will come to Forest.

Having retired from a job in the wind industry, Johnson decried anti-wind “propaganda” that is “based on falsehoods.”

She claimed that it’s safe to live within the footprint of a wind farm.

The PSC will now formulate a decision in the matter and issue their ruling by late March 2013.

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