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Top 10 of 2011: Many delays drag wind case into 2012

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When the battle over wind development in Goodhue County was the Republican Eagle's top story at the end of 2010, it was expected that some aspects would stretch into 2011. But it wasn't quite as expected that the fight would be continuing when 2012 came around.

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Just about every bit of controversy possible has been swirling around a 78-megawatt large wind energy conversion system that is planned for Goodhue County by wind developer AWA Goodhue Wind.

Ranging all the way from citizens and the developer disagreeing about eagle activity in the project footprint to lawsuits being filed by project participants, disputes have been abundant.

The AWA Goodhue project has taken several months longer than most wind farms to get to its current stage, which still hasn't included any construction. A variety of factors contributed to extending the project's original timeline.

Getting approval

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission had been taking its time ever since the end of 2010 to decide whether to approve the project that would be laid out near Goodhue and Zumbrota.

Ultimately, the PUC holds the authority to permit or deny wind farms in the state, but the commission decided to take into consideration a zoning ordinance created by Goodhue County officials in October 2010.

In order to determine the validity of the ordinance, the PUC asked an administrative law judge to review it, which caused the application to drag into April 2011.

It wasn't until June 30 at a daylong hearing in St. Paul that the PUC approved the project. However, a state government shutdown stalled progress yet again and kept AWA Goodhue Wind from getting its permit.

Putting up a fight

Citizens developed two different groups -- Goodhue Wind Truth and the Coalition for Sensible Siting -- to fight the planned project, and a couple of government entities joined in.

With the Coalition for Sensible Siting, Goodhue Wind Truth, Belle Creek Township and Goodhue County all interested in filing for reconsiderations with the PUC, the case slowly inched forward as a second hearing was scheduled for November 2011 in St. Paul.

In what was probably the quickest decision made so far regarding the AWA Goodhue wind farm: It only took commissioners a matter of minutes to decide that the project should move forward as originally approved.

Still, reconsideration wasn't the end of the road. Each group, except for Goodhue County, decided to appeal.

The Goodhue County Board was primarily opposed to the idea since it was likely to cost at least $10,000 to follow through with an appeal. A 3-2 majority made it official: The county's fight was over.

"Wind turbines are coming to Goodhue County," Commissioner Jim Bryant said after voting against an appeal. "I don't think anything we do today is going to stop that."

Looking out for eagles

Over the past year, citizens have shown a variety of concerns with wind turbines, including stray voltage, shadow flicker and noise pollution.

Perhaps the most talked about, however, has been the concern over the safety of the avian population -- whether local or migratory birds -- and their chances of getting struck by the blades of a turbine.

On several occasions, area residents invited representatives from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to view the environment within AWA Goodhue's project footprint.

"It's nice to try to use alternative energy, but we are right on the Mississippi Flyway," Jaime Edwards of the DNR said. "You really have to look hard at whether something like this should be placed on a flyway."

Moving forward

Belle Creek Township made its official decision Nov. 28 to appeal the PUC's initial decision to approve a site permit. Not long after, however, AWA Goodhue began a lawsuit claiming that a moratorium put in place by the township is interfering with the developer's rights.

As the new year begins, having lawsuits and appeals up in the air continues to delay progress of the project. Though AWA Goodhue officials would like to start construction in 2012, only time will tell what gets accomplished during the next year.

A timeline

December 2010

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission debates whether to approve the 78-megawatt project proposed by AWA Goodhue Wind for Goodhue County.

The PUC decides to ask administrative law Judge Kathleen Sheehy whether parts of Goodhue County's zoning ordinance should be applied to the project.

April 2011

Administrative law Judge Kathleen Sheehy submits facts and findings that recommend the Public Utilities Commission not apply the Goodhue County's ordinance to the AWA Goodhue Wind project.

May 2011

Goodhue County Attorney Stephen Betcher files a response that provides an exception to nearly half of the administrative law judge's findings.

June 30, 2011

At a hearing in St. Paul, the Public Utilities Commission votes 4-1 to approve an amended site permit and a certificate of need for the AWA Goodhue Wind project.

August 2011

After several weeks of a government shutdown -- preventing AWA Goodhue Wind from moving forward with its wind project -- the developer receives its official site permit.

Sept. 6, 2011

Goodhue County commissioners vote 4-1 to allow Goodhue County Attorney Stephen Betcher to file for reconsideration with the Public Utilities Commission, asking it to take a second look at its permit approval.

Belle Creek Township and citizen groups Goodhue Wind Truth and Coalition for Sensible Siting also decide to file reconsiderations.

Sept. 20, 2011

Without getting a response from the Public Utilities Commission regarding reconsideration, the Goodhue County Board reluctantly votes 3-2 to submit an appeal to the PUC's decision.

The county is told the appeal period expires Sept. 22. If it opts not to appeal, Goodhue County's battle against the wind project would end if the PUC decides not to reconsider its original approval of a site permit.

November 2011

Goodhue County, Belle Creek Township, Coalition for Sensible Siting and Goodhue Wind Truth are told there was a misunderstanding with filing deadlines for appeals, and their appeals are dismissed.

They are allowed to wait for the Public Utilities Commission's ruling on reconsideration and can then re-submit their original appeal without additional fees.

Nov. 10, 2011

The Public Utilities Commission votes 4-1 not to reconsider its approval of a permit for AWA Goodhue Wind.

Nov. 15, 2011

With misunderstandings and deadlines cleared up, Goodhue County Attorney Stephen Betcher asks the commissioners once more whether he should appeal the Public Utilities Commission's decision not to reconsider approval of a permit for the wind project.

The County Board votes 2-2 to file with appeal, but without a majority the motion fails and Betcher is not directed to appeal.

Nov. 28, 2011

The Belle Creek Town Board votes 2-0 to file for appeal in the wind case.

Angry citizens in Goodhue County District 2 -- potential home to much of the wind farm -- announce a petition to recall Commissioner Richard Samuelson. Since they want to file for appeal in the wind case and Samuelson is opposed to an appeal, they feel he is not representing them.

Samuelson was absent from the Goodhue County Board meeting Nov. 15, but told those at the Belle Creek Town Board meeting he would have voted not to appeal had he been present.

Dec. 1, 2011

Commissioner Richard Samuelson requests an opportunity for the Nov. 15 appeal vote to be re-taken so his opinion can be officially reflected as part of the vote.

Just as he said he would at the Belle Creek Town Board meeting, Samuelson votes no to an appeal, contributing to the 3-2 failure of the motion to appeal.

Dec. 15, 2011

Belle Creek Town Board Chair Chad Ryan is served papers informing him that AWA Goodhue Wind is suing Belle Creek Township because a moratorium put in place by the township is interfering with the wind developer's rights under the site permit it received from the Public Utilities Commission.

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