Shidler wind farm plan moves forward

Robert Smith

In the dying light of a blustery Osage County spring day, supporters and opponents of an approximately $220-million wind farm development planned for private land north of Shidler gathered at the county fairgrounds near Pawhuska and rehashed familiar arguments pro and con.

After the revisitation of apparently irreconcilable differences April 12, members of the Osage County Board of Adjustment voted 3-1 in favor of the wind-energy project proposed by Invenergy, a firm headquartered in Chicago. The vote means the board agreed to grant Invenergy a conditional-use permit on 10,169.31 acres.

Board members Jerry Loftis, Jim Goodwin and Jace Gullic voted for the project. Rick Hedrick voted against it. Board chair Mike Render did not vote. He explained that he would only vote to break a tie, if the other four members were deadlocked.

Janice Finton, principal of Shidler Middle School, spoke in favor of the new wind development.

Finton said the rural school district, which has 41 employees and serves some 250 children, already has experience with wind-energy development. The district received more than $200,000 in June 2017 because of an existing wind-energy project and expects to do so again in June 2018, she said.

“That’s significant to a district our size,” Finton said, adding that it would be significant to any Oklahoma public school district right now because of a decade of under-funding by the state.

During the lean decade just past, the Shidler district, which serves children from several surrounding communities, has had to cut programs such as wood shop, vo-ag, auto mechanics and foreign language arts because of a lack of funding. Wind-energy revenues will enable Shidler to begin reinstating programs, she said.

“It will be an asset for more than just Shidler,” Finton said of the proposed Invenergy development, which company officials said would likely create a permanent footprint on some 50 acres for up to 64 wind turbines. This would take place across an overall area of some 10,000 acres north of Shidler.

Candy Thomas, an Osage Nation official who oversees strategic planning and self-governance, addressed the Board of Adjustment on behalf of Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear. Thomas read from an item that Standing Bear wrote in April 2017 for a Tulsa newspaper.

In the item from which Thomas read, Standing Bear said the Osage Nation “strongly opposes the development of industrial wind farms.”

After the board vote, Thomas said she thinks it is highly likely the Invenergy project will become the subject of litigation. She added that the project still has to clear a lot of hurdles.

Numerous landowners spoke, and voiced differing opinions about the proposed development.

Paul J. Fulsom read from a letter representing his family’s opinion.

“We see this as nothing but positive economic growth,” Fulsom said.

Ford Drummond disagreed. He said wind-energy projects hurt his land values, and he lamented development of Oklahoma’s portion of the Flint Hills.

The discussion also took a turn in the direction of a consideration of respect for American values, and the importance of avoiding the doing of injustices.

Landowner Joe Bush said he lives on an existing wind farm and likes it.

“I like the way it looks,” Bush said. “It gives some vertical interest to the horizon.”

Bush acknowledged he has enjoyed the additional income he has received because of the inclusion of his property in a wind farm, and he said that he likes the fact that the wind farm benefits the public schools.

“You get to use your property unless there’s some just reason not to,” Bush said. “This board has voted against my wind farm, and the Oklahoma Supreme Court rectified that injustice.”

Chris White, who identified himself as a former Osage Nation official, responded to Bush’s use of the term “injustice.” White said that the Osage people understand what it means to be subjected to injustices.

White argued that the Osage Nation retains control of the mineral estate under the surface of real estate in Osage County, and owners of surface rights should not be permitted “to intrude, to trespass on the property of the Osage people.”

Environmental concerns were also a subject of comment at the April 12 meeting. Bob Hamilton, director of the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, reminded the Board of Adjustment that less than five percent of the Tallgrass Prairie remains, and the prairie land in Osage County is a key portion of that.

“Seriously think about where you’re siting these projects,” Hamilton said, adding that it is not consistent with saving what remains of the Tallgrass Prairie to fragment the land with development projects.

Allen Eaton of Grainola, which is right in the middle of the proposed Envenergy development, took a different approach, pointing to the damage that the oil and gas businesses have caused to the environment.

“I worked in an oil field for 30 years. Come out and look at some of that,” Eaton said.

James Williams, an Invenergy executive who made the company’s presentation before the Board of Adjustment, described the company as a “responsible community partner” that takes environmental considerations seriously. Williams reminded the board that Osage County had received more than 150 letters of support for the proposed wind-energy development.

The development is expected to generate some $18 million in property tax payments and another $44 million in landowner payments during the life of the project.