About 70 miles northwest of Dallas, a few dozen buildings, a school and gas station make up the unincorporated community of Era. Residents of the area live on wide-open ranches and farms without much more than a handful of trees dotting the horizon.
A wind farm proposal is dividing the quiet, rural community. Residents who oppose the wind farm say that the company's tactics have been misleading and don't properly take into account the impact the towers would have on the community.
“I’m a big supporter of the Green New Deal," said Meredith Ellis, who runs a ranch in the area with her father. "I really like Obama’s — how aggressive he was about climate and renewable energy — and for somebody that has philosophically supported those kinds of endeavors, it’s hard for me to have that realization of just how wrong this whole thing is."
Ellis was excited when she first heard about the wind farm. She knew the income from a couple of turbines on the property would be helpful for the ranch and wanted to contribute to renewable energy generation. But the more she learned about the proposal and concerns reported by people living near wind turbines, the less it seemed good. At meetings, wind farm representatives couldn't answer all of her questions.
She started researching wind farms and cross-checked the sources the company listed at the bottom of its informational flier for the Wild Cat Creek Wind Farm. Reading studies and first-person accounts, she decided it might be hard to live near wind turbines, which emit constant noise and have flashing lights at night. Quite aside from her concerns about the irritation from newly introduced noise and lights in a normally quiet and dark environment, Ellis also worries about her son, who has autism and is sound-sensitive. She worries he won't be able to stand the turbines and that they will have to leave the ranch.
A study conducted by the Canadian government and another Canadian study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information suggest that people who live near turbines can experience decreased quality of life and heightened stress and annoyance. Both the National Institutes of Health and World Health Organization caution that noise pollution is a major concern for both mental and physical health, and a 2009 study in Sweden concluded that wind turbine noise is often more annoying than constant traffic noise.
Part of the concern about the project is that residents don't know exactly how close the turbines will be. Rorik Peterson is the director of development for EDP Renewables, the company that is seeking to build and operate the wind farm. Peterson says the company generally does not place turbines closer than 1,500 feet from residences. From her research, Ellis says she would be OK with turbines no closer than 1.25 miles, or roughly 6,600 feet from her home — the middle number in the range of comfortable distances she found through her research.
According to the company, the wind installation would consist of 52 turbines, the highest of which would be 355 feet, with 235-foot blades spread across about 15,000 acres. To date, the company has about 12,000 acres under lease. The population density of the area is the same as it is for a number of other projects, Peterson said.
“(One of our) key jobs is to work to get the local community comfortable with that,” he said.
Over the past couple of decades, wind energy has become an increasingly viable source of renewable energy, one that generates electricity from resources that do not exist in finite supply like coal or oil.
Texas produces more of its power from wind than any other state and is poised to connect many more wind turbines to the energy grid in the coming years, but it does not have strict regulations about noise and placement. Instead, restrictions are left up to individual towns. California, another major wind producer, has wind turbine installation and placement rules for each county. Many of these regulations are strict, requiring specific zoning in order to have even a single turbine.
Like Ellis, Nancy Endres supports renewable-energy projects and would like to see the country reduce its usage of coal, but her property is long and narrow. Her neighbor along one side has agreed to lease some of his land to the wind energy company. Endres worries that the turbines will be right next to the property line and make her house uninhabitable. The energy company would also run a transmission line through he property.
“We would be just a corridor,” Endres said. “To put it so close to people is wrong.”
Endres would have no say in the placement of the turbines, because they are not on her property. She has lived in Era for 29 years and doesn't know where she would go if she had to move.
Last week, 31 property owners in Cooke County, where the farm would be located, had signed leases with the wind company. In exchange for the land leases, they will receive a cut of the profits from energy generated and rent from the wind company.
Kenneth Sicking deliberated for a year and a half before agreeing to lease part of his ranch to the wind energy company. He looks forward to the income from the turbines and says the visual of them doesn't really bother him.
“I felt like if I put wind turbines on my land it might put a bit of a damper on urban sprawl,” he said.
Sicking said he hasn't been told exactly how many turbines he will have on his property. The company has told him two or three. He's hoping for three.
Jared Groce, a local real estate agent and land owner, became interested in the claim that wind farms don't decrease property value. In a healthy economy, tax value should be roughly two-thirds of the total amount the property is worth, he said. Groce examined the price of sale of every home since 2011 within 1,500 feet of a wind turbine in neighboring Muenster. He found that although the tax value of those homes didn't decrease, their sale value was less than their tax value, the opposite of how it should be.
He then looked at property sales and tax value in Cooke County in the same time frame and found that they came out at 64.5% of the total property value. Using these calculations, he estimates that the overall property values in Cooke County near the wind farm could drop by up to 49% of their current value.
“And it’s a perfect comparison, windmills are like this, non-windmills are like this,” he said, gesturing to show the property discrepancy he estimated between the two counties.
This kind of decrease in property value would hit the community hard, and residents worry that the community would empty out if the wind farm came to town.
“We’re a small community but with a big school,” said Ellis’ father, G.C. Ellis. “We draw a lot of kids from a big area and we would see where these windmills are going in, rather than people wanting to move into the area, they’re going to be wanting to move out.”
Groce describes the sound standing back from a wind turbine as a “whomp” noise and a low vibration that you can physically feel. Others have compared it with the sound of shoes in a dryer. Standing a few hundred feet from the wind turbines at the University of North Texas, three 200-foot towers, the “whomp” sound is consistent. But what's more noticeable is the low-frequency buzzing they emit.
Wind farms can be constructed nearly anywhere, but some locations are more appealing to companies than others. Peterson, the EDP development director, says the location of this particular farm is good because of the amount of wind in the area and proximity to power lines that can support transmission of the energy generated by the turbines.
According to the Gainsville Register, discussion of the wind farm started when EDP requested a reinvestment zone in southern Cooke County. These zones are designed to encourage companies to bring business and jobs to the area. Under chapter 313 of Texas tax code, companies can request a 10-year tax abatement within these zones.
These kinds of tax abatements are critical to the success of a project like the wind farm. In order for the company to be able to offer energy at a competitive price and compensate for the high cost of installation, there needs to be some offset for the high installation costs, Peterson said.
But the major taxing entities must still approve the tax abatement before it's granted. The largest of these in Cooke County is Era ISD. After outcry from residents, the school board voted against the abatement.
Peterson declined to say if the project would need to be altered without the support of the school district, but there are several other taxing entities in the county that could approve or deny abatement, including Muenster ISD. There are a number of factors that must align for the project to go forward, he said.
The wind farm will be operated by EDP Renewables, a subsidiary of Energias de Portugal, a Portugal-based company that operates 49 wind farms in the United States, Canada and Mexico, according to the company’s website.
A sample lease agreement for the wind farm obtained by the Observer requires the signer to maintain confidentiality about the details of the lease and the company, including payments, operations, equipment, power production and capacity as well as any other proprietary information.
Several community members, including Ellis' parents, are part of a lawsuit alleging that the company and the county did not abide by conflict of interest laws in Texas and seeking a cessation of the company's operations in Era.
One of the initial properties to be leased is owned by family members of one of the Cooke County commissioners. That commissioner, John Klement, recused himself from voting on the tax abatement but voted to approve the reinvestment zone itself, saying he would not benefit monetarily from it.
Both the company and the commissioner had an obligation to file conflict of interest statements and did not, said David Sampson, one of the plaintiffs on the lawsuit. Sampson, who served as deputy secretary of commerce under President George W. Bush, said he is disturbed by the lack of transparency in the way the company and county operated on this issue. Earlier this month, the judge assigned to the case recused herself.
“There are a lot of interests that overlap in Cooke County,” Sampson said.
Going forward with the plans even after the tax abatement denial would mean that the company had grossly misrepresented itself, because it initially argued the project would not be possible without the tax relief, he said.
The proposed wind farm is a large source of tension within the county and between neighbors, and it's unclear how that will be resolved.
“From what I’ve read, one of the saddest parts is how it divides the community, how people no longer speak to each other, how family members no longer speak to each other,” Ellis said.
Ellis, Sampson, Groce and Endres still support wind energy, but they don't believe turbines should be placed near residential communities.
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