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Years later, Wisconsin wind farm fears fail to materialize

Madison Gas & Electric wind turbines in northeast Wisconsin. While divisions still remain over Wisconsin’s first wind farm, the worst fears raised by opponents have failed to materialize. (Photo by Rick Chamberlin for Midwest Energy News)

LINCOLN TOWNSHIP, Wis. — When the 31 Vestas wind turbines in northeast Kewaunee County, Wisconsin began producing electricity in the summer of 1999, a moderate Republican named Tommy Thompson was a few months into his fourth term as governor. Relative peace reigned between the parties in the legislature, statewide unemployment was at a record low and the Dow had just topped 10,000 for the first time.

But in Lincoln and Red River townships, where the turbines were erected, the climate was anything but mild. Residents’ tempers had been flaring since before April 1998 when Madison Gas & Electric (MGE) hosted the first meetings in the community about its plans to build 11.2 megawatts of wind power in the area. Wisconsin Public Service (WPS), a Green Bay-based utility, had also announced its intention to build a large-scale wind farm in the area.

Despite the heat, the two utilities found more than enough landowners in the two towns willing to host all 31 turbines, and the town boards soon voted to approve conditional use permits for the projects. But pressure from several vocal landowners convinced the Lincoln town board in February of 1999 to amend its zoning ordinance to require board affirmation of all applications for future conditional use permits. A few months later, both townships adopted 18-month moratoriums on future wind farm sitings.

“We had some real knock-down-drag-outs,” said Mick Sagrillo, who chaired a committee charged with evaluating the impact of the projects on residents and proposing any changes to the permit process. More than anything, Sagrillo said, people feared change.

Struggle and fear are no strangers to the people of the two townships, in an area that was long the home of the Potawatomi before the first Europeans arrived in 1634. The Belgian immigrants who landed here in the 1850s had to contend with dense virgin forests teeming with wolves and bears. When they set to clearing trees so they could do what they knew – farm – they discovered shallow, rocky, clay soil. They persevered, enduring an economic panic in 1857 and the Peshtigo Fire of 1871, which burned out 62 families in the Town of Red River and left 170 people homeless and destitute in the Town of Lincoln. Even a depression two years later couldn’t defeat them, and by 1874 they’d entirely rebuilt their communities.

‘Guinea pigs’

In 1999, resiliency and a pioneering spirit, along with dairying and Roman Catholicism, still helped help define the two towns, which even today comprise the nation’s second- and fourth-highest concentrations of Belgian-Americans.

The small wind turbines on Mick Sagrillo’s property were among the first in the area. (Photo by Rick Chamberlin for Midwest Energy News)

“We were the guinea pigs,” said Sagrillo, who was appointed to chair the Lincoln moratorium committee in part because of his background in small wind; he’d put up the first of three wind turbines that stand on his property in 1981.

The 292-foot Vestas turbines MGE and WPS erected were giants compared with Sagrillo’s machines, but small by today’s sizes. Nevertheless, they were met by some members of the community with apprehension. A common refrain in 1999 was that the turbines would cause property values to plummet.

That was then

Although the Kewaunee wind farms were the state’s first, today there are 10 large wind installations in the state and 839 in the nation. But the man now holding Tommy Thompson’s old office has chilled wind development in Wisconsin. Seven large-scale wind installations have been cancelled or suspended since January, when Governor Scott Walker proposed legislation calling for much greater setbacks than those outlined in the Wisconsin Public Service Commission’s new wind siting rule.

Wisconsin as a whole is more volatile politically and economically than it was in 1999, but only a few embers from the firestorm that once raged in Lincoln and Red River townships over wind power still smolder.

The moratoriums in both towns expired uneventfully a decade ago, and the Lincoln Town Board took no action on the recommendations of its study committee. Conditional use permits for both utilities were extended in 2004 and 2009 with little opposition, although WPS’s 2004 permit renewal was held up for some months by objections from several nearby landowners, including one farmer who claimed stray voltage from the turbines had hurt his dairy herd.

That landowner and a few others went on to add their voices to an increasingly robust national anti-wind movement. Meanwhile, nearly everyone in the community has seen their property values rise despite a recession, and revenues meet those promised.

Property values

A 2003 study by the Renewable Energy Policy Project (REPP) found “no significant evidence that the presence of the wind farms had a negative effect on residential property values” in the communities closest to the Kewaunee County turbines.

Joe Jerabek

Town of Lincoln Assessor and Zoning Administrator Joe Jerabek, who said he was on the fence about the wind farms when proposed, said the turbines haven’t had an impact on residential property values “one way or the other” since they were built. Recent figures from the Wisconsin Department of Revenue appear to confirm Jerabek’s assertion. The total municipal assessed value of residential property in the Town of Lincoln, which includes new construction, rose steadily from 2007 to 2011, with a total increase of 3.5 percent over the 5-year period. In the Town of Red River, where most of the 31 turbines stand, the increase exceeded 41 percent. By comparison, adjoining Casco Township, which has no wind turbines, saw an overall rise of 9.9 percent.

Gene Dalebroux is a direct descendant of the Belgian pioneers and has been Red River’s town clerk for 51 years. He agreed with Jerabek that the wind farms have not affected property values, and added that he’s not personally aware of anyone who moved away because of them. Jerabek counted eight new homes built in his township within a mile of the turbines since 1999.

Promises kept

When asked if dollars promised to landowners and the townships have materialized, Jerabek said, “I haven’t had any landowners complain that they haven’t received their lease payment.”

Lease payments from the utilities include a per-turbine fee and a fee for acres removed from service. Although the utilities don’t disclose how much individual landowners get, Dalebroux says the average to begin with was around $1,500 per turbine per year, “but that’s grown.” Don Peterson, who was MGE’s project manager for the Red River installation and is now Executive Director of Energy Products and Services at the utility, said landowner payments increase 6 percent annually and are adjusted every 10 years.

The county and the townships get shared revenue through the state’s tax on the utilities’ gross receipts in lieu of property taxes. Initially Lincoln Township’s share amounted to $19,765 annually for the MGE installation alone. But because these revenues decrease yearly due to depreciation on equipment, MGE agreed to make up the difference to the townships for the 30-year life of the wind farm. Jerabek says the check always arrives on schedule.

Two MGE turbines stand on the family farm where Ida and Joanne Fameree grew up and still live in Red River Township. Ida Fameree said MGE has lived up to its end of their agreement.

As for negative impacts, Fameree says she hasn’t seen any. She believes the old steel water windmills many farmers once employed were far noisier than the modern turbines. She said she would rather live near a wind farm than a nuclear power plant, a reference to the reactors at Carlton and Point Beach, about 40 miles away.

Fameree hasn’t noticed any impact on wildlife, either. DNR conservation biologist and Office of Energy liaison Shari Koslowsky said the agency has never received a report of dead or injured animals near the turbines in Lincoln or Red River Townships.

Retired Lincoln dairy farmer Andrew Nowak said he voted against the wind farms when he served on the zoning board, but now says he can live with them. He said noise from several turbines within a quarter mile of his home on a neighbor’s property doesn’t bother him. When asked if the wind farms have been a good thing for the community, he said, “I don’t think they’re bad.”

Done their part, thank you

Despite the converts, few residents interviewed think the community would favor more wind farms in the area.

“No comment,” is how Nowak answered the question, before adding, “A few people are still bitter.”

Former Lincoln Town Board member Ron Opichka, who was often at odds with Mick Sagrillo in the early days, is one of those few. He used the term “shoved down our throats” to describe how the turbines were sited and built.

Sagrillo said the passion of a small number of individuals like Opichka make many people think twice about singing the wind farms’ praises, despite evidence indicating the turbines are more benign moneymakers than monsters.

Joe Jerabek puts it differently when asked if he thinks his neighbors would be in favor of more wind farms in their community.

“We the people of the Town of Lincoln have made our contribution to renewable energy.”

Rick Chamberlin is a Wisconsin-based freelancer whose work has appeared in Wisconsin Trails Magazine, The Capital Times and other outlets.

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Comments (11)

The last sentence says: We the people …have made our contribution to renewable energy. Sounds to me like they don’t want any more!
What were the evaluations of the property before & after? A study of Property values by REPP is not unbiased.
What is the income and education of the local population.
Alot of questions come to mind about, Who is asking the questions and what those questions are.

By Shebah on Dec 20, 2011

Shebah – I had many of those same questions when editing the story, but the REPP study appears solid. There’s a link to the study in the text, you can see the methodology for yourself.
Also, it’s not just the REPP study. As the story notes, a review of tax records, as well as anecdotal evidence from local officials, shows that this particular project didn’t have much of an impact on property values.
That’s not to say wind turbines, or any type of development for that matter, *can’t* affect property values depending on the circumstances. But in this case, as well as in the eight other locations that REPP studied, it doesn’t seem to have made a difference.

By Ken Paulman on Dec 20, 2011

@ Shebah and Paulman and Chamberlain
re property values
The definitive property values study is by the national energy research lab, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (www.lbl.gov). The result is the same — wind farms had no statistically significant effect on property values.
The LBL researchers visited seven thousand individual properties, and rated each property’s view and proximity. In Kewaunee County, they analyzed 810 sales of properties adjacent to the wind projects. This study is as rigorous as it gets.
The fact that people like Shebah and Wisconsin’s real estate lobby are still using the property values “question” as a bogeyman betrays their ignorance or cynicism, and willingness to indulge in their own fears and promote fear in others.

By Alex DePillis on Dec 20, 2011

Correction: “The 7,459 residential transactions in the sample consist of 6,194 homes…” for the whole study. Presumably a similar ratio of transactions to homes applies for the Kewaunee study area.

By Alex DePillis on Dec 20, 2011

It all looks like a good outcome to me. I’m finding that more and more communities are getting off the grid by establishing community wind power. Community wind projects are locally owned by farmers, investors, businesses, schools, utilities, or other public or private entities and they reduce energy costs to the local community. What a great way to generate power with no pollution or global warming.

By Janice on Dec 20, 2011

2 new studies both critical of the Berkley study come to much different conclusions with great impacts to realestate values are:Value in the Wind: A Hedronic Analysis of Wind Power Facilities (July 15, 2011) By Martin D. Heintzelman & Carrie Tuttle
McCann Appraisal LLC June 20, 2011 Review of Cape Vincent
Both come up with 20-40% property value losses at or near 1/2 mile of an industrial wind turbine.In some cases there was complete loss of equity when homes were completely unmarketable or were aquired by wind developers & resold at up to 80% loss or even demolition of otherwise livable homes.
The Berkley Study seems biased and outdated in light of the new studies.

By Shebah on Dec 20, 2011

Shebah – do you have links to those studies, so people can judge for themselves?

By Ken Paulman on Dec 20, 2011

Come On! There are many studies and much testimony concerning the decline of property values in proximity to wind facilities. One good commentary was the Editorial in http://www.windaction.org from several years ago that stated:

Kavet’s review, however, failed to uncover the flaws in the REPP report and why its results have been widely criticized as “extremely weak, if not entirely misleading [Hoen].” Key flaws of the REPP report include a) the authors make no attempt to discern those properties in the study which have a view of the turbines from those with no view. In fact, sixty-six percent of the homes sampled in the REPP report do not see the wind facility at all; b) the REPP analysis makes no distinction between homes near the turbines and those five miles away thus assuming the effect of the turbines was equal on all properties regardless of proximity; and 3) the sales transactions studied in the REPP report included all transactions including those where the buyer, seller, or both may have been unwilling parties (divorce, estate sales, sales between family members).

By julie johnson on Dec 21, 2011

Julie, the LBL report does consider whether turbines are visible, and arrives at the same conclusion as the REPP report.

I think an important distinction needs to be made here – wind turbines can have an impact on property values, depending on circumstances. That’s just common sense. But what the research shows is that there is no *consistent and statistically significant link* between wind turbines and property values.

In Wisconsin, dire predictions that wind turbines would cause property values to plummet just didn’t bear out in reality. Feel free to pick holes in the literature all you want, but I’d be more persuaded if someone could show me some actual — rather than theoretical — evidence to the contrary.

By Ken Paulman on Dec 21, 2011

Here are links to the studies that Shebah mentioned: McCann; Heintzelman

By Ken Paulman on Dec 21, 2011

A recent video from the Shirley wind project in WI. Another home abandonment. Talk about value loss. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=71DxuicwCXw.

By rural 55956 on Dec 22, 2011