United States

United States

Opposition without bounds in Wisconsin

A dirty tricks campaign to prevent construction of a small 25 MW wind farm near the town of Addison, Wisconsin -- including the illegal placement of two members of the project's opposition group on the town council -- could be about to backfire on the perpetrators. After ten months of bitter dispute the project is once again back on the council agenda. But such is the animosity towards the opponents, whose tactics brought the town's administration to a standstill earlier this year, that the chances for a positive response to the permit application have improved considerably.

A positive decision on a long disputed wind farm proposal for the US Midwest could depend more on the town council's level of exasperation with opponents to the project than on the merits of the wind plant

A dirty tricks campaign to prevent construction of a small 25 MW wind farm near the town of Addison, Wisconsin -- including the illegal placement of two members of the project's opposition group on the town council -- could be about to backfire on the perpetrators. After ten months of bitter dispute the project is once again back on the council agenda. But such is the animosity towards the opponents, whose tactics brought the town's administration to a standstill earlier this year, that the chances for a positive response to the permit application have improved considerably.

Addison is a small but growing community 25 miles northwest of Milwaukee. It was asked to consider a wind farm by FPL Energy. But just hours before the town planning commission was to debate granting a conditional use permit, the project was stopped when a local opposition group filed a lawsuit on February 11. From that point the tactics employed by the project's opponents nearly destroyed Addison city government -- to the point where employees faced the possibility of not being paid and housing and business development in the town nearly came to a standstill.

"It looked like scorched earth tactics by a vocal minority in the community who are opposed to the wind farm and so pressured town leaders to take no action," says Jim Tynion, a business and finance attorney working for FPL Energy, the project's owner and developer. The opposition has been particularly frustrating for FPL, which deliberately chose a site close to a load centre and where transmission is available. Compared with wind proposals for remote areas where there are few people and transmission is scarce, the Addison project had everything going for it.

FPL, however, had not reckoned on a vociferous not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) reaction. Once solely a farming community, Addison now has pockets of urban sprawl and it is from this new population that the opposition has been building. "This is a good site near a growing load," says Michael Vickerman of RENEW Wisconsin, a green power pressure group. "Under no circumstances is it reasonable to think that the correct number of wind turbines is zero, which is what the opposition wanted."

Vickerman does not blame FPL for the problems caused in the town. He says the developer had reached some positive level of communications with the residents. "FPL uncovered one of the wind industry's most active opponents in Kathy Lawson," Vickerman says. "She has been relentless and one of FPL's potholes was created by her resolution to do whatever it takes to defeat the project. She basically shut down the town."

Tynion says the Town of Addison Preservation Group, led by Lawson, pressured two newly elected town officials to resign, which left a power vacuum the group sought to exploit. They then put wind farm opponents on the town council through a controversial and what ultimately proved to be an illegal process to ensure the wind project would never get built. "It was a mini-coup d'etat," Vickerman says. "And, it also paralysed other functions in town government, including the ability to write cheques to employees."

It took a state judge three months to declare the appointments invalid and last month the town elected a new town supervisor and appointed two "neutral" town board members and a new planning commission chair, says Tynion.

Early in the process, the opposition group also challenged a Wisconsin law that promotes renewable energy development and does not allow local governments to put restrictions on renewable development unless there are health and safety concerns. Although the preservation group's web site shows pictures of shredded turbine blades and calls for action against "misplaced" wind power projects like they say the Addison one would be, Tynion says the opposition argument was largely based on aesthetics. A Wisconsin Court of Appeals upheld that law in an unrelated case in March.

December vote

Now a review of the conditional use permit is once again on the planning commission's agenda, this time for December 6. FPL, which has stuck with the project for nearly three years, is hoping the commission will finally give its approval. "It did look discouraging for a while, but the developer stuck with it," says FPL's Carol Clawson, referring to Dave Herrick, who is FPL's developer in charge of the project. "It's a good project and it looks like we're on the cusp of a vote...and we're hoping it is a positive vote."

Herrick, who is less sure the vote will occur in December, agrees, but he says FPL also stuck with it because of the lease commitments it had made to farmers. "We wanted to get it to a vote before we decided what to do," he explains.

"At least for the next couple of months, Addison has a government again that seems ready to act on the proposal," Vickerman says. "The people on the planning board want to do the right thing and I think it's time to make a decision."

The opposition in Addison is tough, but it has also alienated nearly all the people who had somehow remained on the fence over the issue, says Vickerman. Whether the planning commission is able to make a decision this month could depend as much on how fed-up the commission is with opposition tactics as on the project's merits.

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