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Wind turbine plan whips up a controversy in Forest

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Wind turbine plan whips up a controversy in Forest
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

A proposal to construct a wind turbine network in the Town of Forest, east of New Richmond, isn't being met with universal support.

A number of local residents have been attending Town of Forest Board and Planning Commission meetings over the past few weeks to voice their displeasure with the plan.

The project is being promoted by Emerging Energies of Wisconsin LLC, a Hubertus company that is involved in several wind farm projects across the region.

Emerging Energies has been studying wind speeds in the St. Croix County township for more than two years.

In an earlier interview with the New Richmond News, Bill Rakocy, co-founder and principal of Emerging Energies, said the Forest area is "very favorable" as a site for large wind turbines. The company's research shows that average wind speeds are about 16 to 17 mph, which is sufficient to turn a large turbine and thus generate electricity.

Emerging Energies hopes to construct up to 40 turbines in the Forest area by 2013 and sell the power to a utility company such as WE Energies or Xcel. A number of local landowners have expressed an interest in having one of the 2.5-megawatt, 350- to 495-foot-tall turbines constructed on their land.

A developer's agreement was signed in August between the Forest Town Board and Emerging Energies. Under the agreement, landowners within a half mile of each turbine, the Town of Forest and St. Croix County would receive annual direct payments during the life of the turbines.

In response to the town's agreement action, residents opposed to the proposal formed an advocacy group called "Forest Voice."

The group has since asked the town board to consider a moratorium on wind turbine installation until an ordinance could be developed regulating such structures in the community.

But after receiving advice from its attorney, the town board noted that any new ordinance wouldn't apply to the Emerging Energies project because regulations cannot be retroactively changed once something is already approved and a developer's agreement is signed.

Residents then asked the town board to reconsider its agreement, suggesting that the contract was void because it was "illegal."

Forest resident Jaime Junker, spokesperson for "Forest Voice," said there was a "rush" to get the agreement signed and that the appropriate steps were not followed when the wind project was first approved in 2008 and then later solidified on Aug. 12, 2010.

He said the town's planning commission never voted on a recommendation on the matter, even though later documents suggest that that body voted to recommend the project.

Junker also said that a resolution related to the eventual developer's agreement may not have been properly signed, leading "Forest Voice" members to conclude that the agreement isn't yet a legally-binding document.

According to a Notice of Claim filed by "Forest Voice," opponents of the proposal worry that the wind project will have a negative impact on the health and safety of residents, as well as have a detrimental impact on the quality of life for those living in the township.

Junker said the filed notice is the first step in the group's potential legal action against local elected officials and Emerging Energies.

Two town board members met in closed session last Thursday to consider the suggestion that the agreement be nullified. Town Chairman Roger Swanepoel has recently abstained from being involved in the wind turbine issue because of a conflict of interest.

No action was taken to rescind the agreement when the town board members recovened in open session Thursday.

Board member Carlton Cress said the agreement will apparently stand as originally approved.

Cress called the situation "unfortunate," but noted that concerned residents should have gotten involved in the approval process sooner.

"We've had some good meetings on the subject, and a lot of people on both sides of the topic have been there," Cress said. "But they weren't at our meetings at the right time."

He said earlier meetings related to the wind turbines were well publicized and the board was open to any feedback. But when few objections surfaced, the project went through.

Cress added that the wind turbine controversy has been the most contentious debate he's been involved in during his 24 years on the town board.

A state panel, established by the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, approved a new set of standards for wind turbine construction in August. The Forest project likely will not be covered by those new rules because the project was officially approved by the town board in 2008.

Jeff Holmquist
Jeff Holmquist has been managing editor of the New Richmond News since 2004. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and business administration from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He has previously worked as editor in Wadena, Minn.; Detroit Lakes, Minn.; Hutchinson, Minn.; and Bloomington, Minn. He also was previously owner of the Osceola Sun, Stillwater Courier and Scandia Messenger along with his wife. Together they previously founded and published The Old Times newspaper for antiques and collectibles collectors; and Up!, a Christian magazine of hope and encouragement.
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