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Forest residents continue feud over wind turbines

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news New Richmond, 54017
New Richmond Wisconsin 127 South Knowles Avenue 54017

The Town of Forest has been a quiet, rural community for much of its long history. But these days there is an atmosphere of unrest throughout the township, thanks in part to a proposed wind farm proposal that has been debated over the past couple years.

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Supporters of the wind energy idea and opponents have been feuding over an agreement with Emerging Energies LLC to place up to 39 wind turbines on private properties. The agreement would pay landowners and residents within a half mile of each turbine an annual payment. The township and county would also have received annual payments.

"Residents and landowners are either for or against this," said Jaime Junker, newly elected town board chairman. "There really is no in between ground. The division line is fairly well divided between people who would get compensated by the project and those who would not."

Emerging Energies has been studying wind speeds in the St. Croix County township for more than two years. The Forest area was found to be a favorable location for large wind turbines due to sustained winds in the area.

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.

According to the original plans, the turbine system would have been hooked up to a new or existing electric substation and the power would have ended up on the grid.

While there was support for the idea among some residents and the Forest Town Board during the initial planning stages, a number of residents are less than happy with the project.

A citizens group, called the "Forest Voice," formed in an attempt to stop the project from moving forward.

The group filed a federal lawsuit on Feb. 9, 2011, claiming that the Town Board had bypassed open meeting law requirements to push through an agreement with Emerging Energies. The group also claimed that several board members should not have participated in the vote for the wind farm plan as they or their relatives stood to gain financially from the project.

The disgruntled Town of Forest residents also petitioned for a recall election of the former town board members. All of the challengers eventually won election to the board. The support of the majority of the residents was reaffirmed last Tuesday when wind turbine opponent Jaime Junker was re-elected as town chairman, and newly elected Patrick Scepurek and Richard Steinberger were returned to their supervisor positions.

After gaining office, the new board members voted on March 17 to rescind the wind energy development agreements, driveway permits and other approvals that had been granted to a wind developer. The board also approved a temporary stay on the location and construction of the turbines in the township.

According Forest Voice's Attorney Glenn Stoddard, most Town of Forest residents were "completely unaware" that the former town board members had approved an agreement in 2008 and another one on Aug. 12, 2010, to proceed with the proposed wind energy project.

A postcard announcing the project was the first many heard about the plan, he claimed.

No public hearing was ever held by the defendants during a three-year development period, he further claimed.

The opponents of the wind project allege that the proposed wind energy project would destroy their quality of life and have adverse health and safety impacts on them.

Despite the fact that the agreements have been rescinded and the town board has been replaced, Stoddard said the federal lawsuit is likely to continue. He said Emerging Energies has indicated that it may seek legal action in an effort to continue with the previously approved project.

Officials with Emerging Energies did not want to comment on the Forest project when contacted.

Junker said many expect the company to seek a legal opinion in the matter.

"Now it's pretty much a wait and see situation," he said. "It's hard to predict what the short term future is going to be."

Whatever the future holds, residents on both sides of the issue say they are frustrated by the continuing feud over wind turbines.

"What has happened in our township is heartbreaking and has left many residents feeling betrayed," said Brenda Salseg, a property owner and managing member of the Forest Voice LLC.

"Those of us who researched industrial wind turbines found disturbing evidence of health, safety and property devaluation issues associated with so-called wind farms when turbines are sited too close to homes. It's all about what is profitable rather than responsible, which is what I thought green energy is supposed to be."

Salseg said it's unfair to force wind turbine opponents to live near such a large project.

"The statement we continually hear that wind energy is green, clean and renewable is nothing more than deception," she said.

Gary Heinbuch, who continues to be a supporter of the wind project, said the atmosphere in Forest is now "as foul as can be."

"It's neighbor against neighbor. It's niece against uncle," he said. "I never thought it would get this bad."

Rick Heibel, 53, who signed an agreement to have three turbines sited on his 240 acres, agreed.

"It's gotten way more heated than I ever thought it would," he said. "I never thought it would get this divisive."

Heibel, who has lived his entire life on the farm that was first settled by his grandfather 99 years ago, said he remains convinced that the wind project would be good for him and for the town.

The annual payments to landowners and local units of government would mean a lot, he said.

"It would greatly enhance my retirement," Heibel said. "Right now, my retirement is Social Security. All my savings is in my land, and I don't want to sell my land. It would make my standard of living more comfortable."

Apart from the financial benefits, Heibel said wind generation just makes sense.

He said all energy generation methods have their drawbacks. The burning of coal contributes to global warming and the mining of coal harms the land, he noted. With the ongoing disaster in Japan, Heibel wonders if more nuclear plants are a good idea. Even natural gas has its problems, he added.

"With wind, I think it's one of the least damaging forms of generation as far as the environment goes," he said.

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