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North Dakota is in many ways an ideal location for wind power. For one thing, it’s the windiest of all US states. In recent years, many in this energy-diverse state have capitalized on that resource. But for others, the prospect of yet another wind project comes with a cost: a marring of the wide open plains that make the region so ideal for wind development in the first place. In Burleigh County, a proposal for a 70-turbine farm has pitted neighbor against neighbor. For David Day, a fourth-generation rancher, “It just boils down to the property rights. And you ought to be able to do what you want with [your] land.” But for others, that singular view of property rights ignores how one landowner’s decision might affect another’s ability to earn a living. “By putting a wind farm right here, I really feel it would stifle development in our area,” says Julie Hornbacher, who moved to neighboring Telfer Township with her husband in 2002 to start a cattle operation. “[W]ho wants to build a brand new home next to a wind turbine?”
When the big wind project came up for a vote in Morton Township, a square of prairie in central North Dakota, township supervisors were in a quandary.
All three supported the project but, as participants, they stood to gain financially. So they kicked the decision to the county commission, which now faces a hornet’s nest of controversy. At the heart of the debate lies a ticklish question:
Do rural Americans have a say in what they see outside their dining-room windows, even if that view extends miles beyond their property lines?
It’s a more profound debate than it might seem, having as much to do with the future of farming communities and land values as it does with aesthetics. And for the wind industry, it poses a sharp challenge. As turbines get ever bigger and more visible as they spread across rural areas, they become more controversial, threatening the industry’s growth.
“Wind energy polls very well,” says Robert Bryce, an Austin-based author of five books on energy and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. “People like it, they like the idea of it. But when it comes to having a six- or seven-hundred-foot wind turbine in your backyard, suddenly people aren't so crazy about it.... And the more they [deploy] their taller turbines, the more people are going to see them and the more people are going to object.”
Already in California, the early leader in wind energy, annual growth in electricity generated by wind has slowed dramatically from its double-digit pace in the first half of the decade, according to federal energy data. In eight of the 41 states with wind power, wind generation has actually declined since 2015. That means the industry is increasingly reliant on the Plains states and the Southwest to sustain its land-based growth. (Offshore wind is another potential avenue.)
And if there are the beginnings of a backlash in a wind-friendly state like North Dakota, then that growth is threatened.
“It seems like the mood has changed against it, because there's getting to be so much wind power in North Dakota,” says Republican state Rep. Jeffery Magrum, whose district includes Morton Township.
So far, the wind industry has done well in this energy-diverse state, which is also the nation’s windiest. Wind generation grew nearly 10 percent a year from 2010 to 2015. Since then, annual growth has been more than triple that figure. The American Wind Energy Association estimates that through last year the industry had invested $5.8 billion in the state, supporting 3,000 to 4,000 jobs directly and indirectly, while providing annual land lease payments of between $5 million and $10 million. That has huge appeal in rural areas, especially where population is falling, agriculture is struggling, and opportunities for economic diversification are few.
The industry’s lone defeat here was in the far western part of the state in 2016, where Billings County rejected a 114-turbine wind farm, in part because it could be seen from Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
When property rights threaten property values
With gravel roads that stretch for miles and far more cows than people, Morton Township is more rolling frontier than tourist mecca. With 45 people spread among its 36 square miles, it would seem the ideal place for a wind farm. But plunked down in the southeast corner of Burleigh County, which also includes the state’s capital, things are a bit more complicated.
“You can see clear to Bismarck,” says David Day, a fourth-generation rancher standing on a hill overlooking rolling olive-brown grassland. He points out a cloud of turbines to the left of the city, a green-energy project already in operation. A stiff breeze, recorded by a tall white measuring tower nearby, makes the sunny fall day feel cold.
This is the northern edge of a proposed 70-turbine farm mostly in Morton with edges bleeding into adjoining Telfer Township and the next county to the south, Emmons. “You need to diversify,” says Mr. Day, who runs a cow-calf operation. He’s become such an ardent supporter of the proposed wind project that the developer, German-owned Pure New Energy USA, has made him an employee.
Part of it is personal: Day stands to gain about $200,000 a year in lease payments for the turbines that would be built on his 4,000 acres of land. He also sees it as a boon for many rural areas, providing money for schools and helping maintain roads.
But in the past two years, as local opposition to the project has mounted, his focus has narrowed. “It's even gotten to the point I don't even think about the money anymore,” Day says. “It just boils down to the property rights. And you ought to be able to do what you want with [your] land.”
From the porch of his inn, Jerry Doan can see the same white measuring tower that Day has pointed out and it fills him with dread, because the turbines under consideration would be three times taller.
The two men have much in common. Their ancestors both homesteaded here in the 1860s. They’re Trump supporters, ranchers, and eager to diversify – Day through wind and Mr. Doan through agritourism and sustainable food. One irony: Day, a supporter of fossil fuels, has embraced the green-energy project with a vengeance; Doan, a passionate supporter of sustainable agriculture, is against it.
“I get it,” says Doan of Day’s concerns about property rights. Through the years he has lobbied state legislators for various agricultural groups. “I spent my life fighting in the legislature for farmers’ rights,” he says. “But a 600-foot wind tower on a 400-foot hill is 1,000 feet tall. And that changes things.”
For example, it dramatically alters the view, which may cost him. Will dozens of tall towers blinking day and night scare away the hunters and other visitors looking to get away from it all at the inn of his Black Leg Ranch? Also, current rules that require wind turbines be set back a certain distance from neighboring residences don’t take into consideration homes that he might build later, which could end up in the shadow of a turbine. “What about my property rights?” he asks.
This latter concern is driving much of the opposition.
“My main concern is the property value,” says Julie Hornbacher, who moved to neighboring Telfer Township with her husband in 2002 to start a cattle operation. “By putting a wind farm right here, I really feel it would stifle development in our area, because who wants to build a brand new home next to a wind turbine?”
The answer to her question isn’t clear. Looking at 1,198 land sales within a mile of turbines, the late Michael McCann, a Chicago appraiser, found that land values declined an average 28 percent. But several peer-reviewed studies by academics and others find little, if any, impact on property prices once the turbines go in.
Health concerns from turbine noise and sunlight flicker could also drive away residents, even though the industry denies there’s a proven scientific link. The flash of light off the structure or the blades poses a problem for KariAnn Buntrock, who has been diagnosed with a seizure disorder that can be set off by flashes of light, says her husband, Andy. She works from home and cannot drive. If the wind project did go in, the closest turbines could be as close as a quarter mile away.
“For her to not be able to come outside and be restricted to the house ... you can't live like that,” says Mr. Buntrock. “That's part of the reason we live out there, so we can enjoy and take care of that land.” The family would have to move if the project goes forward, he adds.
A town divided
For many in Telfer Township and Emmons County who see population growth and real estate development as an economic engine as Bismarck expands south and east, the turbines don’t seem worth the risk. For those in Morton Township, where the population has grown by exactly three people since 2010, that prospect seems more remote.
“We're getting 40-acre people, I call them,” says Daymon Mills, one of the Morton Township supervisors who kicked the wind-farm decision to the Burleigh County commission because of his participation in the project. “They come out and buy a little plot of land and put up a horse barn and stuff like that. Well, they're definitely against [wind turbines] because they think their land values are going to go down and they don't want to see them. Basically it gets down to: They don't want to see them.”
While wind-project opponents claim big majorities in Telfer and Emmons, sentiment in Morton seems more evenly divided. When Mr. Mills ran for supervisor on a pro-wind platform, he won 24 to 17.
“It's just torn the area apart: those who want it and those who don't,” says Day. “The little church that my forefathers helped build here back in the 1880s, the wind company was going to give them all the propane for the church, buy them new stoves and cooktops for their basement kitchen, and no strings attached. [But] the people on the board said: Oh no, we're against the wind farm, so we can't take that kind of donation…. With that in mind, my whole family has pulled out of that church that my family helped build generations ago.”
Wind opponents also regret the standoff.
“I was really good friends with [Day’s] stepdad,” Doan says. “I’ve said: You could give up a little bit of your wind energy so we could all get along. But they look at me as if I was an idiot.” Now, he says, the rift won’t be mended in his lifetime. “And I don’t think it will be in my kids’ generation.”
All this will come to a head Dec. 5, when the county commission holds a public hearing on the project in the city’s convention center. The original hearing had to be postponed because so many people showed up – in the hundreds, reportedly – that three rooms of the city/county building in Bismarck couldn’t hold them. Except for rules about setbacks and hours of permitted intermittent light, the commission has little to go on about the right to an uncluttered view and the related impacts it might have on health and property values.
“I think I'd trade the two or three people that I thought used to be good friends for about 40 or 50 that are incredible friends,” Buntrock says.
And there’s some evidence that if the wind project does go through, perhaps the part confined to Morton Township, the bitterness will not be as great as many predict. Earlier this year, an Energy Department survey of some 1,700 residents in 24 states living within five miles of a utility-scale turbine found that only 8 percent had a negative attitude about them while 57 percent had a positive attitude. Even half of those within a half mile were positive or very positive about the turbines compared with 25 percent who were negative or very negative.
In his calving barn, newly rebuilt since a tornado came through, Day talks about a neighbor who opposes the wind project. “We trade services back and forth all the time,” he says, indicating a miniature frontloader parked several feet away. “That’s his Bobcat sitting there.”