PORTAGE - The Columbia County Board of Supervisors offered tepid approval Wednesday to a resolution declaring electricity-generating wind turbines on five parcels of farmland are in keeping with the landowners' farmland preservation agreements with the state.
But the non-unanimous voice vote assent didn't come without questions about the effects of the turbines on farming, and about how the county's approval or disapproval of the resolution might affect the future of what could soon be the state's largest wind energy farm.
We Energies plans to build Glacier Hills Energy Park, beginning this spring, on leased farmland in the towns of Randolph and Scott. Plans call for up to 90 wind turbines, capable of generating up to 207 megawatts of electricity.
Five of the parcels leased for turbine locations - four in the town of Randolph, one in the town of Scott - are subject to farmland preservation agreements with the state.
The intent of the resolution was to declare the county's conclusion that locating a turbine on the land is not inconsistent with the agreement that the land must continue to be used for agricultural purposes.
But why, asked Supervisor Debra Wopat of Rio, is Columbia County even addressing this issue?
The towns of Randolph and Scott are not covered under the county's zoning ordinances. And the farmland preservation agreements, she said, are between the landowners and the state's Department of Agriculture Trade and Consumer Protection.
Kurt Calkins, director of Columbia County's land and water conservation department, said it was the county board that originally approved forwarding the farmland preservation agreements to the state - so the County Board has to authorize a change in the agreement to reflect the presence of the windmills. The DATCP will agree that the windmills do not impede agricultural use of the land if the county also agrees to that, he said.
"The real question is, do you deem them consistent with agricultural use? That's the question the state has asked us to answer," Calkins said.
Supervisor Fred Teitgen of rural Poynette questioned whether the turbines are good for rural areas.
"There are problems with large wind turbine systems, especially with noise and shadow flicker," he said.
That was why Teitgen proposed amending the resolution to say, "Columbia County believes [that] a wind turbine structure may not (instead of will not) conflict with continued agricultural use in the area,"
He also proposed adding to the resolution a condition that the turbines should be sited properly in accordance with Wisconsin Public Service Commission standards and local requirements.
This amendment failed on a voice vote.
Supervisor Brian Landers of Wisconsin Dells said he was concerned that the revision might imply that the county can or should provide oversight for the construction of the We Energies turbines. If that's the case, Landers asked, then which department would be responsible for the oversight, and at what cost to the county?
"I would be hesitant to add language that we somehow have a governance of this if we don't have the legal authority to do so," Landers said.
When Supervisor John Tramburg of Fall River asked how much farmland would be consumed by the turbines and related structures such as roads, Walter "Doc" Musekamp of We Energies said that, among the five land tracts in question, a total of 3.4 acres would be taken out of production for roads and foundations.
Construction of the roads and other ancillary structures is expected to start this spring.