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Windy neighbors: Residents offer perspectives on living next to turbines

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GINA R. HEINE
November 11, 2007
— Standing in their front yard, Tim and Diane Metzler explained how they built their house 15 years ago to view the rolling countryside in Red River Township.

The 10 windows in the front of their house look out to miles of hills and woods, dotted with farms and silos.


About eight years ago, their landscape changed with the addition of a 290-foot wind turbine in the field across the road from their house.


“One of the biggest things for me is the view,” Tim Metzler said. “They’re not the ugliest things to look at, but, again, we built this house here, and we have 30 miles we can see out there of countryside, and then all of a sudden they put a wind turbine in front of us.”


The turbine is one of 17 on a wind farm owned by Madison Gas and Electric.


There are positives to the towering white structures, Metzler said, such as the renewable energy they generate.


“I think that’s a great thing because we need to do that,” he said.


But they have their drawbacks for those living nearby, he said. When they were first installed, it was like living next to a highway or railroad tracks, he said.


“It’s annoying, and it takes awhile to get used to them,” he said.


The Janesville Gazette knocked on doors and talked with residents who live closest to wind turbines in two projects in Red River and Lincoln townships northeast of Green Bay. Residents offered their perspective on what it’s like to live next to wind turbines.


On this day, the calm, damp air wasn’t turning the 31 turbines that dot the rolling hills. The towering structures blended into the gray sky.


Down the road from the Metzlers is the farm of Rock and Lisa LeFevre, who lease out their land for four turbines.


The family enjoys watching the machines and say they’ve gotten used to having them nearby.


“I’m well satisfied,” Rock LeFevre said. “(Madison Gas and Electric) was very good to us. We had some say in where they went and what they did.”


The utility company still hosts an annual holiday party for landowners and pays for any crop damage, he said.


While LeFevre has nine turbines clustered around his farm, he’s not sure how he would feel about dozens more.


“I don’t know if there would be 50 if I would like it. I can’t say,” he said.


Revenue from the land contract accounts for about 10 percent of LeFevre’s total income, but as a dairy farmer, that guarantee is reassuring, he said.


“That bottom could drop out,” he said of milk prices. “As the price of milk fluctuates so much, (leasing the land is) an income that I know is going to be there. I try not to depend on it, yet I know it’s going to be there.”


Sound

The swishing noise the turbine blades make isn’t audible from inside a home or building, residents said.


At 800 feet downwind from a turbine, the noise level is 47 decibels—the volume of a quiet conversation, according to Madison Gas and Electric.


When the wind gets real strong, Metzler said the turbines make a “banging” sound as the blades force themselves through the air. The sound is surprisingly less in open areas, he said, explaining how the noise is louder at his parents, who live down the road in a wooded area.


“You get used to it,” several residents in the area said.


LeFevre noted the sound can be choppier when it’s raining or sleeting.


Bev Pelnar often sits on her front porch in Lincoln Township and admires the wind turbines, she said. The best way she can describe the sound is a fan on low, but only on a windy day with no background noise.


Sound from the turbines blends with ambient noises and gets drowned out by farm equipment, other residents said.


Two Lincoln Township families, however, filed a nuisance lawsuit against Wisconsin Public Service alleging the turbines created too much noise and shadow flicker, but settled out of court, their lawyer said. Another case filed this summer is pending.


One of those residents, Mike Washechek, said he supported the project in the beginning, but the sound and shadow from the turbines about one-fourth mile west of his home is just too annoying.


“I haven’t gotten used to it,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s just too loud at times to be ambient.”


Shadow flicker

At certain times of the year, mainly in fall, the Metzlers get a shadow flicker through their front windows, the result of the sun setting behind the turbine when it’s in motion.


It can last three or more hours during peak times, Tim Metzler said. He estimates that time by his activities—when he’s watching an afternoon football game, the flicker will last the whole game, he said.


The LeFevres have turbines on both sides of their home, so they can get a flickering shadow in the morning and evening. It’s mainly in winter because the sun isn’t as high, LeFevre said, and it only lasts about 20 minutes.


For Richard Lohrey, whose Lincoln Township home sits across the road from a row of turbines, shadow flicker is no big deal.


“I roll over and go back to sleep,” said Lohrey, who moved to the area after the turbines were installed.


It doesn’t bother him enough to close his blinds, he said.


Other issues

The Metzlers were concerned about the turbines affecting their property values, but “it doesn’t seem to have changed a bit,” Tim Metzler said.


They had their home appraised a couple times since the turbines were installed, and their home value either stayed the same or increased, he said.


Pelnar said dead birds have not been a problem. Her family still has birdhouses, and they get just as many birds as before the turbines.


The eight flashing red lights on the turbines change the night sky and make you feel like you’re living in an industrial park, Washechek said.


Tips for Rock County

The most important thing for people to do in a proposed wind farm site is to educate themselves, Metzler said.


“It’s not a bad thing, and I think if the town works with the people in the township, and the energy company works with the people of the town, they’d have a lot less opposition,” he said. “I’m not against renewable energy, I think it’s a great thing. A lot of people are for it and love it, and I think it’s just the right placement of it.”


Before people form negative opinions, Pelnar suggests they visit a wind farm.


“I think you’ll find there’s nothing to fear,” she said.


The Kewaunee County projects would have been better if developers would have solicited people to see who was for and against wind turbines, Metzler said.


“Then made a decision based on the people who like them in the area they want to put them, if it’s feasible,” he said. “That would have been the best thing to do.”


The biggest thing from the landowner’s perspective was trust in the company, LeFevre said.


“The relationship between that company and you has to be a good relationship and have trust, because this is not something that’s going to go away once they’re up, and Madison Gas is very good to me,” he said.


Town officials also should take note of road conditions before and after turbine installation, Metzler said.


“It does raise a lot of heck on the roadways,” he said.


The road they live on needed more blacktop after the construction, he said.


Despite some annoyances that go with living near the turbines, Metzler jokes he always can tell which way the wind is blowing.


“I don’t think it’s any different than living by a highway or a railroad track or airport,” he said.


“You get used to it.”


To learn more

If you want to learn about wind farms, stay off the Internet, Mick Sagrillo said.


He was chairman of the Town of Lincoln Wind Turbine Moratorium Study Committee in Kewaunee County and is a wind energy specialist with Focus on Energy.


He encouraged residents to educate themselves.


“Don’t read about Germany and other places you can’t get to,” he said.


The Lincoln Township wind farm has been discussed in Rock County, with people pointing to a document on the Internet that Sagrillo says includes excerpts from his committee’s final report. The Internet document, however, cherry picks the negatives and takes things out of context, he said.


What the two projects in Kewaunee County boiled down to was two different utilities with two different approaches to the community, he said.


“To a very, very great extent, it was about the way the utility treated the community,” he said.


People should find out exactly what wind farms are like by going to listen and see, he said.


The closest and also largest Wisconsin wind farm is Montfort in Iowa County, less than a two-hour drive from Janesville. The Montfort Wind Farm consists of 20 wind turbines, completed in July 2001.


EcoEnergy will host a bus tour to a wind farm for Magnolia and Union township area residents in a couple months.


“That’s the absolutely best thing you can do—see for yourself,” Sagrillo said. “The problem with the Internet is there’s no peer review.”



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