Question marks are blowing in the wind as the Indiana General Assembly heads down the home stretch. That’s especially true where a small town’s ability to keep towering wind turbines away from their residents is concerned.

Senate Bill 535, which would essentially limit a town’s ability to create such buffer zones outside of its boundaries, was scheduled for second reading by the Indiana House of Representatives Thursday, but later taken off the agenda. 

The bill is partially in response to small towns trying to protect residents from wind turbine development. In Henry County, 12 of the 16 incorporated towns have passed an ordinance creating a four-mile buffer zone prohibiting wind turbine construction.

The legislation now being considered would grandfather 11 Henry County towns. Middletown, which passed its buffer zone ordinance earlier this year, would have its law nullified by the current language in the bill. SB 535 would prohibit other towns in Indiana from following suit, basically on the premise that rural residents shouldn’t be subject to actions by town government representatives they can’t vote for in an election.

Judy Walker, one of the local residents who has been an outspoken opponent of wind turbines, said the best case scenario would be for SB 535 to die on the House floor.

“We’re just basically in a holding pattern,” Walker said.

While there are no pending wind turbine-related activities on the horizon, the issue appears to be far from settled in Henry County, no matter what happens to SB 535. Walker said more than 100 leases with property owners have reportedly been signed with Calpine.

“(Big Blue River Wind Farm project manager) Derek Rieman is in the Calpine office today at Sulphur Springs,” she said. “My understanding is that they have been pursing electrical easements. It is far from a dead issue.” 

At a recent County Commissioners meeting, an agreement with Citizens State Bank was approved setting up an escrow account for Big Blue River / Calpine. The escrow account and a $75,000 deposit is a precursory initial step required by Henry County’s wind ordinance for companies to do business here. 

Tim Maloney, senior policy director of the Hoosier Environmental Council, expressed his concern when SB 535 passed out of committee:

“We appreciate that the committee modified some of the troubling language of SB 535 as passed by the Senate, but remain concerned that the bill still unreasonably limits cities and towns’ authority to protect their residents from land uses just outside their municipal boundaries that could pose public health risks,” Maloney said. “This authority – known as extraterritorial jurisdiction – has been used by many communities to protect the health and safety of their citizens from harmful waste facilities, surface mines and quarries, and CAFOs. Land use is properly regulated by both cities/towns and counties, and the bill maintains cities and towns zoning authority in a 2 mile fringe when the county does not employ zoning in that area or the municipality is already exercising its zoning authority in that area.

“But the bill eliminates the four mile extraterritorial authority over conduct that endangers public health, safety and welfare, while grandfathering in ordinances adopted prior to January 1, 2019,” Maloney continued. “We urge the full House of Representatives to adopt an amendment that restores the ability of Indiana’s cities and towns to protect their safety and public health through use of extraterritorial jurisdiction, reinstating the four-mile limit and providing for coordination between cities and counties in the use of this authority.”

Meanwhile, the Sierra Club, an environmental organization dedicated to protecting resources and wild places, has also weighed in on the SB 535 debate.

“Wind turbine placement has become a flash point in several Indiana communities,” said Brian Hasler of Capital Assets LLC. “While we respect the need for responsible setbacks, the Sierra Club doesn’t want to impede the move to wind as an alternative source of energy. Rep. Tom Saunders filed two bills that would potentially have made installation of wind turbines more difficult in the state. HB 2060 was the most troubling as it would have required local referenda before installation. Fortunately, both of Saunders’ bills were not heard.”

Others have said even if SB 535 passes, wind companies could file lawsuits challenging the legislation. If the bill dies, those same companies could take legal action against towns and their buffer zone ordinances.

“It is far from a dead issue,” Walker said.

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