Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
JEFFERSON, Wis. (AP) — 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 glass door to her expansive backyard where they see a lot of wildlife, including owls.
“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 the construction of 24 wind turbines, standing nearly 500 feet tall. One of them would be 1,500 feet from the couple’s home in the town of Jefferson, a rural farming community of 1,200 people in Green County, near the Illinois border.
On a February afternoon, Blanc and Minucci drove 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. Similar protest signs stood in yards throughout the town.
Blanc learned about the plans for the wind project in October, when EDF Renewables, the American subsidiary of a French company, sent her a notice of the project in the mail.
EDF’s plans for the 65-megawatt Sugar River Wind Project calls for having 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 is one result of a reignited interest among wind developers in the state, said Michael Vickerman, Renew Wisconsin policy director. Currently, wind power provides less than 3% of Wisconsin’s electricity. Residents can also benefit. Vickerman said the average annual lease for 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.
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.
After receiving notice of the planned wind project, Blanc organized her neighbors in protest. Under state law, projects will be automatically approved after 90 days if a local municipality does not pass a wind ordinance adding new conditions. So for the Blanc and her husband, the situation was urgent.
Blanc said she is not anti-wind. She just does not think turbines should be close to residences. One worry is that her property value will lose some of its value if wind turbines come to tower above it.
“Who is going to want to buy it living in the shadow of giant, industrial wind?” she asked, raising a question studies have failed to answer, as some have found property values decline when wind farms are nearby and others have 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,” Blanc said. “This is what we’ve worked for our entire lives.”
At an evening Jefferson Town Board meeting in late February, a roomful of more than 70 local residents faced three town board members and the town attorney, at times booing and jeering. After being under public pressure for months, the board was considering a possible wind ordinance. State law prevents local governments from enacting restrictions on wind projects that exceed the standards set out in the state’s wind energy siting law, Public Service Commission Rule 128.
Before the law’s enactment, in 2012, some local governments were blocking projects. PSC 128 was a way to provide predictability in the permitting process and help prevent impasses. Under the law, any local government that passes a wind ordinance gains the power to regulate, approve or reject a wind project, as long as it acts within bounds set by the state.
Yet some residents, like Blanc, want the town to push the limits of the law and require setbacks that are greater than the standard of 1,250 feet outlined in PSC 128. The town planning commission has supported those proposed changes.
But the town 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. Board Chairman Harvey Mandel said in an interview that he did not want to approve an ordinance that would invite a lawsuit.
On several occasions, audience members shouted to the elected leaders that they would soon be out of office after spring elections. Two people stood to speak in favor of the project; about 10 people spoke against.
In interviews before the meeting, some residents said they have heard people living close to turbines can be disturbed by flashing shadows and low-frequency noise from the rotation of the blades, causing 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 “very little evidence is available about the adverse health effects of continuous exposure to wind turbine noise.” The Wisconsin Department of Health Services says there are no known health effects from wind turbines.
In January, an expert panel reviewed scientific studies for a coalition of environmental groups, finding “little scientific evidence to support claims of health problems caused by wind turbines.”
EDF Development Director PJ Saliterman, director of EDF Development, said in an interview that the allegations of harm are a “myth.”
“Too often fear and misinformation … from web-based sources are used to drive wedges in communities in between neighbors,” he said.