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Wind farm too small for fight, firm says

Challenging Addison permit in courts is not worth expense

By DON BEHM

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

02/02/2002

Addison - A Florida corporation walked away from its plan to build a wind farm in Addison rather than mounting a costly legal challenge of town restrictions on the project, company representatives said Wednesday.

FPL Energy decided the relatively small project was not worth the additional investment needed to carry the lawsuit and likely appeals through the courts.

"It was a business decision," spokeswoman Carol Clawson said. "It was a very small project in the scope of projects that we do, and it just wasn't viable. There was no point in fighting any further."

Though the company's proposal to erect 28 towers on high hills east of U.S. Highway 41 would have been the largest number of turbines at a single wind farm in Wisconsin, it would have been a minor project in FPL Energy's portfolio.

FPL Energy last year erected the two largest projects ever built in the United States, a 278-megawatt wind farm at King Mountain near Odessa, Texas, and a 261-megawatt wind farm on the border of Oregon and Washington.

The generating capacity of the proposed Addison wind farm, by contrast, was 25.2 megawatts, even less than the 30 megawatts of electrical power coming from FPL's Montfort wind farm along U.S. Highway 18 in Iowa County.

After the proposal spurred two years of bitter confrontations at public meetings and enough turmoil to shut down the town government twice last year, most residents in the town expected a lengthy legal battle over a conditional use permit needed for the project, according to Town Clerk Ellen Wolf.

Town Attorney Stan Riffle even warned Plan Commission members earlier this month that the town would have to defend a proposed permit in court if FPL Energy thought that permit conditions substantially increased project costs or decreased its efficiency.

On Tuesday, FPL Energy said that the Plan Commission's proposed 1,000-foot-wide safety zone around each wind turbine tower would have cut the number from 28 to seven or eight.

"This restriction drastically affects the cost and efficiency of the project, to the point of making it uneconomical," project manager Dave Herrick said in a written statement.

A 1993 state energy law limits a municipality's authority to restrict such projects. Local restrictions are permitted only if they protect public health or safety, do not increase the cost or decrease the efficiency of the system, or allow for an alternative system of comparable cost and efficiency, a state appeals court ruled in March 2001.

Instead of the widely anticipated announcement of a lawsuit, however, the town Tuesday received FPL Energy's surprise notice of its withdrawal from the scene.

Most visitors to the Town Hall on Tuesday afternoon questioned why FPL Energy backed off rather than continuing to fight for a permit, Wolf said.

FPL cut its losses

A more complete answer came Wednesday in interviews with Clawson and attorneys representing the company and a group of residents who had signed leases allowing FPL Energy to build its facilities on their properties.

FPL Energy chose to cut its losses at Addison now rather than invest in the court fight because the project also faced an uncertain future for several other reasons, according to Jim Tynion, a Milwaukee attorney representing FPL Energy.

Among them:

Costs of buying turbines and constructing the facility have steadily climbed since the company made its final application for a town permit in October 2000, Tynion said. Major state utilities have now purchased the amount of electricity from wind and other renewable sources that they needed to comply with a state mandate. Additional mandatory purchases of renewable energy are a few years off, and contract prices at that time might not be as favorable as they had been, he said. Congress did not act last year to reauthorize federal production tax credits for wind energy. Those tax credits boosted the income of energy producers. The industry expects Congress to renew the program, but the timetable is not known.

"FPL decided to use its resources elsewhere," Tynion said. On Friday, the corporation will close its office on Main St. in Allenton, an unincorporated community in the town.

Ed Ritger, a Random Lake attorney representing his mother, Rose, and the owners of 15 other properties leased to FPL Energy, said the corporation had been watching the cost per turbine to develop the project. Prolonged legal challenges can be very expensive, and at this point the company signaled that the project was no longer a good investment, he said.

Another reason might have been its public image, Ritger said.

"A lot of corporations don't like to do development by carrying a big legal stick," he said. "That is not good public relations, and that is not the image that FPL Energy wants to cultivate around the country."

But one critic of the FPL proposal predicted the long fight that occurred in Addison wouldn't be the last of its kind in the state.

"As long as state agencies are standing shoulder to shoulder with corporations that want to take advantage of Wisconsin's natural resources, residents of Addison and residents around the state will not rest easy," said Cathy Lawton of Barton, a member of the Town of Addison Preservation Group.

"If it can happen in Addison, it can happen anywhere."

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