A town of about 600 residents in western Wisconsin has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and taken out a line of credit to fight a wind farm the local elected board once approved.
And there is no end in sight to the expenditures against the proposed Highland Wind Farm, a $250 million project that would consist of between 41 and 44 wind turbines on 26,550 acres in the town of Forest and adjacent parts of St. Croix County. Jaime Junker, chairman of the Town Board, said he has strong public support to continue a fight that has taken him before the state’s Public Service Commission on several occasions and now St. Croix County Circuit Court.
“People have been very vocal,” he said. “They don’t want the wind farm.”
In an attempt to learn how much the fight against the Highland Wind Farm has cost Forest, Carol Johnson, a town resident and former employee of several wind developers, has been gathering check registers going back to 2011. That was the year Junker and two other residents booted out the former board members in a recall election driven mainly by opposition to the wind farm. Johnson’s tally puts the number at slightly more than $500,000.
Junker said that seems high. Still, he acknowledged that the number could have reached $250,000.
Attempts to obtain the town’s check registers through a public-records request were unsuccessful Friday afternoon.
Whatever the actual amount, Junker said he understands how some might think the spending excessive for a town with annual budgets around $400,000. He also said the town recently took out a $100,000 line of credit with Hiawatha National Bank’s branch in Glenwood City and now carries about $70,000 worth of debt.
Junker said not all of the money has been borrowed to cover legal and experts’ fees related to the wind farm, but “there’s no doubt we wouldn’t have that line of credit if we weren’t in this situation.”
For critics, Junker said, he has a simple rebuttal. He estimated the total assessed value of the town of Forest, which is about 40 minutes east of St. Paul, Minn., and consists mostly of farmland, at $35 million.
Junker said he has seen studies suggesting the construction of wind farms can cause the value of nearby properties to plummet by between 25 and 30 percent. The threat of that great of a loss, he said, helps put the town’s spending in perspective.
“If the experts are right and everybody loses 30 percent,” he said, “it’s a super-easy calculation.”
The idea that wind farms can cause property values to fall is just one of the many sources of controversy that surround the projects. Junker and others also cite studies, as well as anecdotal evidence, suggesting a link to illnesses.
Advocates of renewable energy are usually quick to dismiss such research as “pseudo-science” and argue that reputable experts have found next to no reason to conclude wind farms are harming the health of those living nearby.
Still, concerns about illness are affecting public policy. During every legislative session in recent years, a group of Republican state lawmakers has unsuccessfully tried to pass bills meant to provide residents more protection.
And earlier this month, the Brown County Board of Health declared the local Shirley Wind Farm a “human health hazard.” That project, which consists of eight turbines in the town of Glenmore, has been an example cited in many of the hearings held on the wind-farm bills introduced in the state Capitol, where opponents have testified that three families abandoned their homes after their proximity to the wind farm led to illness.
The Shirley Wind Farm, in fact, is at the heart of much of the opposition to the Highland Wind Farm in Forest, said Douglas Karau, a former Town Board member who lost his seat in the 2011 recall election. The developer on both projects is the same: Hubertus-based Emerging Energies of Wisconsin LLC.
Shortly after Karau and another board member approved the construction of the Highland Wind Farm, they hit upon the idea of building support for the project by organizing a trip to let residents see the Shirley Wind Farm in Brown County. Karau said that even though he and other board members had discussed the Highland project in open meetings, it quickly became apparent that many people living in the town were not aware of the plans.
The opposition grew following revelations that Karau and one other board member stood to make money from the deal. The former board president, Roger Swanepoel, already had been selected as a “host,” meaning that he had agreed to allow a wind turbine on his land in return for lease payments.
Recognizing the likely conflict of interest, Swanepoel recused himself from the vote approving the Highland Wind Farm. Karau also stood to benefit from the project, but in not so direct a manner.
When the Highland Wind Farm was being put to a vote, Karau said, he was aware that he could be one of several residents who would receive “good-neighbor payments.” Those would be made, he said, to residents who do not have a wind turbine on their property but live within a half-mile of one.
Because many more town residents likely would benefit from good-neighbor payments than direct leases, Karau said, he reasoned it was ethically acceptable for him to vote on the Highland Wind Farm. Only later, after he had been kicked off the board in the recall, did he enter into an agreement to lease his land as a wind-turbine site.
Junker said he and other residents found the relationship between the developers and the former board members problematic, and that was part of the reason why the recall was successful. Because of the new board members’ suspicions, he said, one of their first steps upon taking office was to rescind the development agreement, as well as any building permits and other official documents, issued by the town to Emerging Energies.
The developer responded by filing a claim against the town for $25 million but did not pursue the matter in court. Attempts to reach a representative of Emerging Energies were unsuccessful Friday afternoon.
Rather than fight the town in court, the developers have looked for help from the PSC. In 2010, utility regulators adopted a rule that lets local officials continue to exercise control over wind projects capable of producing up to 100 megawatts but disallows the adoption of standards that are stricter than the state’s.
Bigger projects, meanwhile, were left to the jurisdiction of the PSC. The Highland Wind Farm, when completed, is expected to be capable of producing 102.5 megawatts.
The first time Emerging Energies sought approval for the project, in March 2013, the PSC turned down the request. The developers returned more than a year later with a plan to have the turbines run less at night to reduce noise.
Regulators approved the Highland Wind Farm on Oct. 25, 2013. Since then, the town has sued the PSC in St. Croix County Circuit Court, questioning the rationale behind the changed attitude toward the project. The suit has prevented the Highland Wind Farm from being built, and the developers had to obtain an extension of a construction deadline tied to the approval of the project.
Junker said the court fight is going well so far. He said the lawyers and experts hired by the town to fight the wind farm made their points well during oral arguments Tuesday in St. Croix County.
Junker said he expects a ruling in six months. He declined to say how much more of his time, and the town’s money, he would be willing to devote if the decision does not go his way.
“We are focusing on this thing in court,” he said, “for the time being.”