One of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s first actions in office was to declare the state “Open for Business,” vowing to lure industry and create a quarter-million jobs.
But legislation Walker proposed as part of this initiative could strangle a growing state industry – wind power - with a stringent siting rule likely to make major future development nearly impossible.
Why would a pro-business governor support a plan that wind experts say would likely shoot down 11 proposed projects representing a $1.8 billion investment?
Wind developers and advocates say it is because of the influence of the state’s powerful real estate industry, whose leaders say wind turbines significantly decrease property values and prevent agricultural and open land from being transformed into residential developments.
The bill, which has not yet been introduced or found a sponsor, calls for an 1,800-foot setback from the property lines of all adjacent non-participating landowners. Setbacks are typically measured from the nearest structure, so the property-line provision means it is even more stringent than it appears. Unless property owners give special permission, any one turbine would need to be surrounded by a buffer zone as large as 360 acres.
“This legislation would pretty much kill any large wind turbine project in Wisconsin, and even a one- or two-turbine project could be defeated by one neighbor who doesn’t want to look at a turbine,” said Wes Slaymaker, a Madison-based wind developer.
A land fight, not an energy fight
Wisconsin Realtors Association chief lobbyist Tom Larson said Realtors were "definitely" the driving force behind the wind siting portion of Walker’s bill. He and other prominent Realtors also lobbied against the Wisconsin Public Service Commission’s new wind siting rule, set to take effect March 1, which created uniform statewide standards, including a setback of 1,250 feet from homes.
People involved in the years-long, collaborative process of drafting the PSC rule, which Larson says was "rammed through the dark of night in December," said the Realtors Association tried to insert a provision which later showed up in Walker’s bill – mandating that wind-related contracts with landowners be carried out by a person holding a real estate license (which is already required under state law), and calling for written disclosure of that license.
Another provision requires landowners be given a brochure about wind power prior to signing a lease agreement.
Realtors made more than 300 donations totaling over $100,000 to Walker’s campaign, though they also donated generously to his Democratic opponent.
“This is more of a land use fight than an energy fight,” said Michael Vickerman, executive director of RENEW Wisconsin and a member of the state’s wind siting council. “The Realtors are afraid wind generation will slow down the conversion of agricultural land to residential land. They’re trying to drive a stake through the heart of wind development before the next project is permitted.”
Walker called for the bill’s introduction as part of a special legislative session opened in January, but Vickerman and others think legislators have gotten nervous about the wind-siting proposal since realizing the extreme effect it would have on the industry.
Wind opponents have lauded Walker’s proposal, calling it a way to block large wind farms and make sure landowners who live near turbines are fairly compensated.
Property impacts of turbines
Realtor and appraiser Kurt Kielisch, who studies the impacts of turbines, gas pipelines and power lines, said he is not for or against wind development but wants to make sure landowners don’t lose out. His study of three major wind farms in Dodge and Fond du Lac counties says nearby property values declined 12 to 47 percent from 2006 to 2009, depending on the proximity of turbines.
“We don’t know how much of the property value impact is from noise, aesthetics, health concerns - it’s probably all lumped together,” he said. “I believe that if an industry is causing loss of value to one person but it’s for the greater good, then that person should be fairly compensated. I’m not against wind farms, I’m just concerned that property owners are protected.”
A handful of studies in recent years have shown varying results on how wind turbines impact property values.
A December 2009 study by the Ernest Orlando Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, found no significant impact on property values from wind turbines. However, Michael McCann, a Chicago-based appraiser who has testified against wind farms in several states, published a detailed critique of that study and said its numbers actually indicate a 5 percent decrease in property values within a mile of turbines.
Wind proponents note that since the economic crisis has caused property values nationwide to plummet, it is hard to draw conclusions based on recent numbers.
'Sending a message'
Ron Heuer lives in Kewaunee County in northeast Wisconsin, where Element Power is seeking to build a 165-megawatt wind farm. He thinks residents are being misled into signing contracts that don’t benefit them financially, and is a big supporter of Walker’s proposal.
“If you’re given a choice to move into a house in the countryside and look at the natural flora versus looking at a wind turbine, which are you going to buy?” he asked. “There shouldn’t be one turbine built, end of discussion. It’s not that I’m a NIMBY guy, I don’t think these should be built in America. We should be taking all this time and money and coming up with something that’s better than wind.”
Another supporter of Walker’s bill, Steve Deslauriers of Brown County Citizens for Responsible Wind Energy, thinks wind development could increase utility rates enough to scare away manufacturers or cause existing manufacturers to leave. Wind proponents said any increases in utility bills that might be caused by wind development are negligible, and it’s highly unlikely this would affect whether other industries locate in Wisconsin.
Howard Learner, executive director of the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center, said Walker’s bill would likely drive away, rather than protect, manufacturing jobs in Wisconsin.
“Wind component manufacturers want to locate where wind power will proceed most robustly,” he said. “Gov. Walker is certainly sending a message that state leaders don’t want wind power, and to wind equipment manufacturers that their market will be elsewhere.”
Mark Hutter, vice president of business development and marketing for the Michels Corporation, said the company regularly hires locals for temporary construction and permanent maintenance jobs on wind farms. If the bill passes, he said, Michels’ Wisconsin-based employees will have to spend much of their time away from home working on projects in other states.
“For a 100 megawatt project you’re looking at 125 jobs during construction, then six to eight permanent people on maintenance,” said Hutter. “Then there’s all the local jobs at gas stations and local restaurants. And we might use local sources for things like concrete. It’s quite a dramatic economic impact.”
Slaymaker fears projects in which he and partners have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars could be halted if the bill passes. One of the potentially affected projects comprises two on-site turbines for an organic food operation that wants to reduce its carbon footprint.
The Realtors' Association says that wind farm development will prevent the construction of new housing in many parts of Wisconsin, a significant contributor to the state's economy.
Bypassing the PSC
A spokesman for Walker declined to comment except for a statement saying, “Governor Walker is focused on ensuring Wisconsin has a business climate that allows the private sector to create 250,000 jobs across all economic sectors. This wind energy portion of the bill is aimed at addressing concerns on wind energy policy that impact homeowners. If enacted, this legislation will protect the private property rights for all Wisconsin citizens.”
Wind proponents said Walker’s bill is especially frustrating since it runs rough-shod over the new PSC rule, which was painstakingly crafted over a multi-year process wherein various stakeholders collaborated and compromised to find common ground.
“The important point is that (PSC rule) was the result of bipartisan legislative support and two years of heavy stakeholder involvement,” said Keith Reopelle of the environmental group Clean Wisconsin. “To ignore all that process and input seems very arbitrary.
“Walker's campaign slogan was ‘Wisconsin is open for business,’” he added. “But apparently when it comes to the energy sector we're only open for dirty power business, and closed to clean energy businesses.”
Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based freelancer and author whose work appears in The Washington Post, The New York Times and other outlets.
Photo by Wisconsin Politics via Creative Commons
This work by Midwest Energy News is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.