Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

April 13, 2014

PUBLIC EYE: Right across the county line

By Scott Smith
Tribune columnist

Grant County has wind problems, and as an editor recently and quite rightly noted, “Wind doesn’t care about county lines.”

So Grant County’s issues over a proposed E.ON Climate & Renewables wind farm are becoming Howard County’s issues as well.

If the Grant County project — now stalled by a standoff between that county’s council and commissioners — doesn’t move ahead, it doesn’t bode well for the likelihood of E.ON continuing its planned project on the Howard County side of the line.

To remind Howard County residents, E.ON has plans for portions of Phase Two and Phase Three of the Wildcat Wind Farm to be built in Howard County.

Phase Two would place a grouping of turbines in the southeast corner of Howard County, while Phase Three, which would cover a much larger area of the county, would cover the Howard County's northeast corner, starting about a mile and a half northeast of Greentown. Both Phase Two and Phase Three extend over into Grant County.

Over in Marion, E.ON managed to arrange the same kind of “streamlined” approval process that Howard County officials agreed to in 2009.

That means E.ON’s plans aren’t dependent on a public hearing and a subsequent vote by county officials. As Grant County’s area planning director, Steve Niblick, puts it, “If [E.ON] came in today for a permit … they’d be started.”

But E.ON hasn’t started, and they haven’t shared their reasons for holding off with Grant County officials.

There’s speculation that the energy markets aren’t supportive of new wind farms right now, but there’s also the issue of the Grant County Council, which hasn’t yet approved an amended economic development agreement with E.ON.

The Grant County Commissioners signed the new deal last year, but the council has balked, perhaps because four council members are facing re-election this year. Again, I’m speculating a bit.

The amended agreement also provides an extension on the project’s tax abatement. The company asked for the extension, because a clause in the original abatement stated the company had to begin construction by the end of 2013.

Whether the abatement is still in place is a matter of great debate in Marion, with members of the council saying no, E.ON officials and the commissioners saying yes, and the council’s attorney calling it a gray area.

The commissioners obviously see the new deal as an improvement over the first agreement they signed with E.ON, since it includes greater setback requirements.

If the council doesn’t approve it, E.ON has suggested it could move forward under the previous agreement.

There are massive similarities between Grant County’s dilemma and Howard County’s, including efforts to try to appease wind opponents by brokering a new deal with E.ON. Howard County’s new deal, signed last year, even includes another $500,000 for the county, along with bigger setbacks.

Whether any of this will be enough to satisfy opponents is another matter.

And over both counties, the possibility E.ON officials simply walk into the plan commission, pay a fee and submit plans, hangs over everything.

With wind opponents coming to every meeting, Grant County’s council members have yet to take a vote on the new deal, which has been in their laps since December.

Pressure, it seems, doesn’t pay much attention to county lines either.