KILGORE — Carolyn Semin and her husband, LeRoy, moved out to their patch of the Sand Hills in the 1950s. Other than a random passing vehicle on nearby Highway 20 they have enjoyed an unspoiled view of miles and miles of grass-covered prairie ever since.
There are more cows than people in Cherry County, and the closest village, Kilgore, has a population that barely exceeds the capacity of a single school bus.
But that sense of isolation was shattered this spring when a neighbor called to inform the Semins that 30 wind turbines, each more than 400 feet tall, were being planned across the highway.
Carolyn Semin, now a retired school teacher and counselor, got active, organizing folks against the wind farm project. It has stirred up a controversy that local ranchers say the area hasn’t seen since frontier days, when barbed-wire fences arrived to hem in the open range.
“I love the nature and solitude of where I live,” said Carolyn Semin, 72. “We don’t want to see (the wind farm), we don’t want to be around it. That’s why I live here. I love being away from everybody.”
Over the past few months, sign-toting protesters have lined the street outside the County Courthouse in Valentine, there have been nasty posts on Facebook about “greed” and “stupidity,” and turbulent public meetings have extended past midnight. Lifelong friendships have splintered over opposing views on the $108 million wind farm.
“It saddens me ... over a well-intentioned effort, a good, responsible way to help everyone,” said Todd Adamson, a rancher and a board member of Cherry County Wind, a coalition of 70 landowners promoting the wind farm.
The controversy was to come to a head today, when the Cherry County Board votes on whether to permit the wind project, which supporters say comes with a bushel of benefits: nearly $400,000 a year in additional property taxes, yearly lease payments to ranchers of $7,000 to $10,000 per wind tower, and three or four new, well-paying jobs.
Monday’s vote came at a time when there’s growing opposition to wind development across Nebraska, as more rural residents said they don’t want tall turbines spoiling their views, generating noise and threatening birds.
Lancaster County, a year ago, passed tougher noise restrictions that would preclude most wind development in the state’s second-most-populous county. In rural Holt County, some citizens are now calling for a moratorium on new wind turbines just weeks after the state’s largest wind farm — the Grande Prairie project, with 200 turbines — began generating electricity there.
Nebraska, despite its world-class wind resources, has been playing catch-up to states like Iowa and Kansas in the wind-development game.
If wind farms can’t be built in remote, unpopulated corners of the state like Cherry County — which has fewer than one resident per square mile — some wonder whether the state can ever catch up.
State Sen. Al Davis of Hyannis, who represents the region, said many opponents are resistant to change.
Davis said that his support for the Kilgore project probably cost him some votes in his unsuccessful re-election bid but that Cherry County would be foolish to reject the wind project.
It would diversify the area’s cattle-based economy, he said, and uphold private property rights, because only willing landowners would have turbines on their land.
“I’m not interested in having wind turbines on my ranch,” the senator said, “but I don’t think it’s my right to tell my neighbor ‘I don’t want to look at them so don’t put them up.’ ”
The Kilgore wind project has been several years in the making. In 2010 the Cherry County Board appointed a committee to look into the potential of wind energy in the county.
That led, a year later, to the formation of a local pro-wind group, Cherry County Wind.
All county residents who owned 100 acres of land or more were invited to join, and ultimately about 70 landowners, controlling 450,000 acres — an area more than twice the size of Douglas County — signed up. The wind group has some unique aspects: All members will share, at least nominally, in the profits from a wind farm, and 5 percent of the revenue will be set aside for community betterment grants.
“This has all been done from day one to improve the community through economic development and additional tax revenue, and to provide new income streams for ranchers in the area,” said Eric Johnson, vice president of Bluestem Sandhills, a partnership between the local wind group and Bluestem Energy, an Omaha-based company.
The partnership picked a site south of Nebraska Highway 20 just southeast of Kilgore, which is 320 miles northwest of Omaha. The site is near an existing transmission line and would not require the use, or tearing up, of county roads.
It meets the county’s setback and noise restrictions, and it has received the blessing of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, which studied whether it would harm wildlife and migrating birds.
Rex Adamson, a third-generation rancher from Cody, said he signed up to join Cherry County Wind because a wind project is one of the few ways to lower local property taxes and provide a new source of income.
But opponents such as Semin said that such “industrial” projects are unsuitable and unsightly, and that construction will tear up the fragile, sandy soil.
There is no guarantee that property taxes will fall, she and others said, and the flashing red lights at night will ruin the dark night sky, which has spawned an annual tourism event, the Nebraska Star Party, a few miles away.
“We’re desecrating a national treasure, like throwing paint on Mount Rushmore,” said Brent Steffen, who has a ranch near Thedford, in southern Cherry County.
Two protest groups, Preserve the Sandhills and Save the Sandhills, have formed to oppose the wind farm and another energy project in the area, a high-voltage transmission line planned by the Nebraska Public Power District.
Unlike the wind farm, the proposed R-Line could involve the use of eminent domain to get it built, which has already prompted a lawsuit from a landowner.
Wind opponents like Steffen and Semin see the R-Line as another example of a project that will spoil the view and provide little local benefit. Johnson and other wind advocates, meanwhile, say the R-Line is a separate issue unconnected to the Kilgore wind project.
Johnson said he can sympathize with those who don’t want to see a wind turbine on the horizon, but the benefits of the Kilgore project outweigh the negative impacts.
Plus, he said, Bluestem Sandhills is exploring a way to reduce the number of wind turbines and move them farther away from the closest landowners (the Semins live about 2 miles from the nearest turbine, and another family about a half mile away). Johnson said developers are exploring a switch to new, higher-output wind turbines, which would reduce the number of towers from 30 to about 17.
Developers, he said, are also looking at buying a new radar system that allows the blinking red warning lights on the towers to remain off at night until an airplane approaches.
A Dec. 7 public hearing in Valentine again prompted protesters and divided views on the wind project.
Among those providing testimony were officials from both Holt and Antelope Counties, who said that wind projects there had benefited their communities. The Elgin Public School District said it had reduced property taxes two years in a row.
“We saw it as a win-win, all the way along,” said Holt County Board member Bill Tielke of his board’s approval of the 200-turbine Grande Prairie project.
The Dec. 7 meeting had a chorus of complaints about the project. One person who spoke called wind energy “one of the greatest sins of our time.”
Today’s vote might not be the last word on the Kilgore project.
One member of the three-member Cherry County Board, Jim Van Winkle, is a member of Cherry County Wind. He recused himself from the recent public hearing and probably will not vote today. That presents the possibility of a tie vote, which would send the wind farm back to the drawing board.
A lawsuit is a distinct possibility no matter which way the vote goes.
And even if the Kilgore wind farm gets a county permit, it still needs to find someone to buy the power it will generate, though Johnson said it’s highly likely that would happen.
Several people interviewed said they hope a decision is made so people can move on.
Said Carolyn Semin: “I’ve lost 20 pounds. I’ve probably aged that many years. And I don’t have that many years left.”