By Sarah Whites-Koditschek
Wisconsin Public Radio
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
Cindy Blanc, 57, and her 61-year-old husband, Peter Minucci, are freelance musicians who moved to 5 acres in the countryside in south central Wisconsin for the scenic views and serenity.
Blanc leans against the inside of the glass door to her expansive backyard.
“When you look out here, you see pond and prairie and woods and tracks of animals all around. We have so many birds, and we have owls,” she said.
They like to sit on their backyard patio in good weather.
“This is the best place to watch stars ever because there’s no light out here,” she said. “Now we’ll have … flashing lights.”
Blanc was referring to a plan for 24 wind turbines, nearly 500 feet tall, including one tower that she said would be 1,500 feet from the couple’s home in the town of Jefferson near the Illinois border in Green County.
On a February afternoon, Blanc and Minucci drive through fields along a county road in their tan 1999 Oldsmobile to a neighbor’s house to hand out yellow posters with the image of a wind turbine with a circle and red slash mark across it. The protest signs are in yards dotted throughout the town.
Blanc learned about plans in October for the wind project when EDF Renewables, the American subsidiary of a French company, sent her a notice in the mail.
EDF’s 65-megawatt Sugar River Wind Project would include 24 turbines spread over 5,870 acres. According to the company, the project would bring in more than $250,000 in tax revenue annually. It has the capacity to provide power for 20,000 homes, according to the pro-renewables group Renew Wisconsin.
The project reflects a reignited interest among wind developers in the state, according to Renew Wisconsin Policy Director Michael Vickerman. He said an unfavorable political climate and an excess of energy generating capacity made Wisconsin unattractive until recently when those factors began to shift.
Currently, wind power provides less than 3 percent of Wisconsin’s electricity.
The fight between residents and renewable energy is playing out in Wisconsin and other states as large wind and solar projects — which in some cases can produce electricity more cheaply than coal-fired power plants — have begun cropping up in rural areas.
Becoming a ‘wind warrior’
After receiving the notice, Blanc made public records requests, worked to understand Wisconsin regulations governing wind power and organized her neighbors to rally against the turbines. Under state law, projects are automatically approved after 90 days if a local municipality does not pass a wind ordinance to specify conditions for approval of the project, so the situation felt urgent.
She leaves the poster with a neighbor and gets back in the car.
“This is the exciting life of a wind warrior,” Blanc said laughing. “But mostly I just sit around and like, write emails.”
Blanc said she is not anti-wind, she just does not think turbines should be close to residences.
They pull back into their own driveway and see their yard sign has fallen over.
“What’s the irony of it getting knocked over by the wind?” asked Blanc.
She is worried her property’s value will fall with wind turbines towering above it.
“Who is going to want to buy it living in the shadow of giant, industrial wind?” she asked, raising a question that studies have failed to conclusively answer, as some find a decline in value and others do not.
“We’re working musicians. We have no pension. We have no retirement. So this 5 acres and this janky old farm house, is like, it,” she said. “This is what we’ve worked for our entire lives.”
Blanc is suspicious of local leaders.
One of the three Jefferson Town Board members plans to lease some of his land to the wind company. A member of the town planning board also has a lease. The two recused themselves from decisions about the project. But Blanc believes that did not go far enough. “I think that the township board members should have resigned,” she said.
Opponents seek wind limits
At an evening Jefferson Town Board meeting in late February, a roomful of more than 70 community members faced three town board members and the town attorney, who sat behind a long row of tables. At times, the crowd booed and jeered at the local leaders.
The board was considering public comments on a possible wind ordinance after months of public pressure.
Under state law, local governments cannot enact restrictions on wind projects that are stricter than the state standards set out in Public Service Commission Rule 128. Yet some residents, like Blanc, want the town to push the limits of the law and require setbacks from residences greater than the state standard of 1,250 feet for homes whose owners are not leasing land for the project. The town planning commission supported those changes.
But the town’s attorney, Daniel Bartholf, advised the board against challenging the law, as did an attorney for EDF. Ultimately, the Jefferson Town Board rejected the proposed ordinance.
“While we appreciate that the ordinance states that the Town Board may not impose any restriction that is more stringent than (the law) … certain provisions of the Plan Commission’s suggested modifications appear to do just that,” EDF attorney Christa Westerberg said in a Feb. 27 letter to Bartholf obtained under the state public records law.
On several occasions, audience members shouted to the elected leaders that they would soon be out of office after the spring elections. Two people stood to speak in favor of the project; about 10 people spoke against it.
Health problems debated
Some in the audience spoke of fears about reports they had heard and read about people who live next to turbines experiencing devastating health problems.
In interviews before the meeting, some residents said they have heard people living close to turbines can be disturbed by the flashing shadows and low-frequency noise from the rotation of the blades. Some people who live near wind projects have reported headaches, nausea, lost sleep and other health issues.
The World Health Organization has identified sound from wind turbines as a health risk, although it acknowledged that “very little evidence is available about the adverse health effects of continuous exposure to wind turbine noise.” In January, an expert panel reviewed scientific studies for the nonprofit Iowa Environmental Council, a coalition of environmental groups, finding that “researchers who evaluate public health hazards continue to find little scientific evidence to support claims of health problems caused by wind turbines.”
Resident Diane Elliman stood up at the meeting and said she retired in the area three years ago. She said she never would have considered moving there if she had known about the wind project.
“We don’t want them. End of story.”
Don Amacher spoke of Brown County, Wisconsin, where the Board of Health determined there was evidence of negative health effects from a local wind project. Later, in 2015, the county’s health director reversed course, saying she could not establish a link between the residents’ complaints and the turbines.
“This health concern from these turbines is real,” Amacher said. “There are some people that cannot even live in their homes anymore.”
Linda Bender, a proponent of the project, who holds a so-called good neighbor contract with EDF, questioned stories of maladies from the turbines. Such contracts authorize payments for owners with a turbine near their home but not on their property; the EDF contract requires grantees to keep the payment amount confidential. It also prevents them from suing the company for any disturbance from the turbines and other project machinery.
“If this was such a great health concern,” she said, turning from the front row to look back at the rest of the audience, “why didn’t the hospitals … come and tell everybody that it was a health concern? They say there is no evidence of health concerns.”
Micah Bahr is a resident in the town of Kendall in Lafayette County also near the Illinois border. He is a farmer who supports renewable energy; he has an array of solar panels next to his barn. But Bahr spoke against the Jefferson project at the meeting.
Bahr lives near a wind farm. The closest turbine is about three-fourths of a mile from his property. He can hear a whistle and a “whooshing” sound from the blades. What is worse, Bahr believes it is giving him headaches.
“I was wondering why I was getting a headache,” he said in an interview at his farm. “And it wasn’t dawning on me until I came in the house and I ate dinner and my headache went away. When I went back outside to work again, within an hour, my headache was back. So then it dawned on me that there was a different sound, a lull, humming type sound that was coming when the wind comes out of the south.”
But the Wisconsin Department of Health Services says there are no known health effects from wind turbines. EDF Development Director PJ Saliterman said in an interview that allegations of negative health effects are a “myth.”
“Too often fear and misinformation … from web-based sources are used to drive wedges in communities in between neighbors,” he said.
Renewable energy and local control
Vickerman of Renew Wisconsin believes neighbors who are not offered turbine leases or “good neighbor” contracts object to them because they are jealous — or they fear change.
“All it takes is one individual who really doesn’t like wind power to generate the level of controversy that spreads and results in a division within the host community,” he said.
Vickerman was part of the council that offered input on the development of PSC 128, which sets standards for wind projects.
Prior to the law’s enactment in 2012, some local governments blocked projects in their areas. Because the state has a goal of creating renewable energy, he said, PSC 128 was a way to provide predictability to the permitting process and to help prevent impasses.
Town Board Chairman Harvey Mandel said in an interview that he did not want to approve an ordinance that would exceed state standards and invite a lawsuit. On March 20, Mandel and the remaining town board member, Rick Nusbaum, decided against creating a local ordinance.
Mandel said he has heard no complaints from farmers who work and live around wind turbines about 20 miles away. However, he acknowledged he has heard residents near other wind projects do not like them.
Any local government that passes a wind ordinance gains the power to regulate, approve or reject a wind project, within the bounds set by the state. The Green County Board on March 12 passed its own wind ordinance in line with PSC 128, and it applies to towns in its boundaries, including the town of Jefferson. The county zoning department plans to review the project for approval. That decision can be appealed to the PSC.
Family feud over wind farm
It came as a surprise to Jim Bauman that his brother and neighbor, Brian Bauman, signed a lease to place a wind turbine and power station on his property in Juda, Wisconsin. That decision has put a crack in the bonds of an otherwise close family.
“We are an agricultural community, we like our landscapes the way they are,” Jim Bauman said. “This will make us an industrial community.”
Not only is Jim upset, but so is his sister, Linda Kundert, who lives about 10 minutes away. She and her husband, Dan, along with their son, Brent, are dairy farmers on land they purchased in 2001. They too may soon live next door to several towering wind turbines.
“We just never thought of this area as an industrial area, and the turbines kind of make it that,” she said.
Dan Kundert said he tries to “picture four of them looming over you.”
The Kunderts also fear they and their dairy cows will suffer health problems from the turbines. They have heard that the machines’ sounds can make cattle less productive.
Jennifer Van Os, a University of Wisconsin-Madison assistant professor of dairy science, said she knows of no scientific research published on the effects of wind turbines on cattle.
The Kunderts recently invested in a large new building for their dairy farm, and given the economic decline of the dairy industry in Wisconsin, they are afraid sick cattle could be the final obstacle that drives them out of business.
“I’m tired of waking up with a knot in my stomach going through ranges of emotions,” Dan Kundert said. “Neighbors should not do this to neighbors, and above all, family should not do this to family.”
Brian Bauman did not return calls for an interview about his plans. Jim said the turbine on Brian’s property will be closer to his own house than to Brian’s.
“I really don’t want to listen to a machine that’s whining or making noises continuously,” Jim Bauman said.
Linda Kundert took the news especially hard.
“We’ve always been together. We spend holidays, Christmas together … He chose money over family,” she said. “He chose money over our quality of life.”
According to Vickerman, the average annual lease for hosting a turbine in Wisconsin is roughly $5,000 to $7,000 a year. Saliterman said the company will start off paying a total of $300,000 a year to landowners and neighbors, an amount it expects will increase.
EDF offered Jim and Kim Bauman a $1,500-a-year easement for the noise and vibration or other effects of the turbines. They declined to sign the contract, which would have prevented them from suing the company for damages from the turbines.
The Kunderts say perhaps they would have responded differently if the project had been presented to the entire community earlier and if they had a vote on whether it should come.
“A lot of things went on behind our back, and we were left in dark,” Dan Kundert said.
Officials not required to notify residents
Vickerman agreed that it would be best for wind companies to communicate early with the public about their plans.
But Saliterman said EDF did not want to announce the project before specific plans and leases were completed.
“People say ‘Well, what is it that you’re going to do?’ and if we don’t have a plan then there’s an information vacuum that other people will fill,” he said. “So what we did is we took our time and met with landowners and put together a pretty close representation of what the project was going to look like.”
The company is required by law to notify neighbors within a mile of a turbine 90 days before it files a full application for a project. Towns and other local governments must publish a notice once the application is filed.
Even months or years prior to that, one of the first steps in such a project is to get a permit to set up a meteorological tower. For that, companies must go through the county.
Green County issued EDF a meteorological tower permit on Oct. 13, 2016.
Adam Wiegel, the zoning administrator for Green County, said when that happened, the county was not required to reach out to notify people about it.
There are many local projects that people have strong feelings about, Wiegel said, adding, “It is hard to notify everybody of everything.”
Conflict of interest concerns arise
The residents’ concerns stem in part from conflicts of interest in other wind projects in Wisconsin. In 2010, officials in the Brown County towns of Morrison and Wrightstown were required to recuse themselves from voting on a wind project because they had leases with the company.
State law prohibits public officials from profiting from matters they oversee, and the Wisconsin Ethics Commission has advised that recusal is the appropriate step for a public official with such a conflict.
“A local public official may not take official action substantially affecting a matter in which the official, the official’s family, or associated organization has a substantial financial interest,” the commission says.
Lisa Linowes, executive director of the WindAction Group, a national group dedicated to “balance the debate” — often by raising concerns about the wind industry — said ethical issues do not appear to be as prevalent as they were a decade ago. But she still hears from people who suspect backroom dealing.
Often, she said, local leaders tend to be large landholders and as a result, more likely to be targeted for wind leases. Even those who do not have a lease may be persuaded to support the project because of the prospect of financial benefit to their community. Those conversations usually happen with developers before the public has a chance to weigh in.
“By the time you get to speak to the county or the township officials, they’re already sold (on the idea),” Linowes said, adding she believes many officials do have the best interests of the community at heart.
“The people sitting on the commission or these boards need to be sensitive to the fear people have that they are being sold out,” Linowes said. “If these commissioners are more sensitive to that worry, they will be much more public and transparent about what’s happening.”
In the town of Jefferson, board member Lyle Samson along with Larry Eakins, a member of the planning commission, have recused themselves from participating in the decision over the Sugar River Wind Project because they hold leases with EDF.
Mandel dismissed the suggestion of any unethical practices in the town’s handling of the wind project. He said it was “too bad” that critics have maligned the officials with leases, adding, “They’re good people.”
Samson declined to talk for the story, citing his recusal, and Eakins did not return a request for comment.
EDF’s Saliterman said the company does not target local officials for leases.
“Whenever a decision maker or local official has a conflict of interest under Wisconsin law, it’s our expectation the rules will be followed, and they would take whatever steps are appropriate,” Saliterman said.
“Each project we develop is a calling card for our next project,” he said. “As you know, bad news travels much faster than good, and if we were messing up in other communities, you would hear about it.”
In the April 2 election, both Mandel and Nusbaum kept their seats. Samson did not run for re-election.
‘Clean, free wind’
Not everyone in Jefferson opposes the project.
Tim Bender is a truck driver and advocate of the project. He and his wife, Linda, a stay-at-home mom, were among the few proponents willing to speak at the Jefferson Town Board meeting.
“I just can’t stand to sit back and watch an opportunity pass us by,” Tim Bender said, adding that he thinks there are more supporters of the project but they are intimidated by the opposition.
The Benders have a “good neighbor” agreement with EDF. They would like to host a turbine too, but their property is too small.
Linda Bender said it is a modest amount of money. “It ain’t gonna get me out of debt,” she joked.
Tim Bender said his support is not motivated by personal profit. He said he is pro-renewable energy because it is better for the environment than natural gas or coal.
“Why not benefit from clean, free wind?” he asked. “We have maybe three days out of the year when we don’t have wind. Why shouldn’t we benefit from it?”
Sarah Whites-Koditschek is a Wisconsin Public Radio Mike Simonson Memorial Investigative Fellow embedded in the newsroom of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. Christa Westerberg provides legal services for the Center but was not involved in the reporting or editing of this story. The nonprofit Center (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.