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North Dakota regulators order removal of wind turbine in landowner dispute

Members of the North Dakota Public Service Commission sided with a landowner and ordered the removal of a turbine from a Minnesota Power wind farm on Wednesday. Commissioners estimated the process will cost the company upwards of a million dollars.

kessler residence.jpg
The Kessler's residence in Oliver County, before and after renovations in 2016. From case filings before North Dakota Public Service Commission.

BISMARCK — A Minnesota-based power company may have to uproot a wind turbine in central North Dakota after state utility regulators sided Wednesday, Aug. 4, with a nearby landowner who argued that the company erected a tower too close to a farmhouse on their property.

The unanimous decision by the North Dakota Public Service Commission concluded a case brought more than a year ago against Minnesota Power, a subsidiary of Allete, and could cost the company upwards of a million dollars in the removal and relocation process.

“I think it sends a very clear message to industry: Don't make assumptions when you're evaluating and going through processes,” said Commissioner Brian Kroshus in a hearing Wednesday.

The complaint was originally brought by Keith and Deanna Kessler, ranchers in Oliver County, who said a turbine on the central North Dakota Bison wind farm was constructed 1,125 feet from a farmhouse on their property, within the 1,400 buffer zone that the company had guaranteed for occupied residences. Minnesota Power has said that they did not apply for the buffer because the Kessler farmhouse was unoccupied when the wind farm was permitted in 2013. The company also argued that the Kesslers did not raise concerns about the turbine until February of 2017.

Keith Kessler said that shadow flickers from the rotation of the turbine blades, on top of substantial noise generated by the wind tower, has been a disturbance in their residence. Though the family doesn't occupy the building year-round, Kessler said they use it regularly when working with cattle, during hunting season and as a summer residence. He added that the family had plans predating the wind farm for their sons to live in the house after college, but noted that one son gave up on living there because of noise from the turbine.

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"It's a great win for North Dakota and for landowners—property owners—to protect their rights," Kessler said of the commission's decision. "There's enough wide open spaces in North Dakota for the residents and the wind companies to coincide."

In a statement, Minnesota Power spokesperson Amy Rutledge said the company has been evaluating removal options over the last month and assessing its options for the placement of a new turbine. “Once those evaluations are complete, we will move forward to meet the PSC’s order,” she said.

All three commissioners said they believe Wednesday’s decision will have long-term ramifications for how wind developers approach siting in the future, noting that they believe Minnesota Power did not provide the commission with adequate information during the original process in 2013.

Commissioner Julie Fedorchak stressed the importance of proximity between new wind farms and local residences in the overall siting process, calling the area “ripe for problems between the company and the landowners." Kroshus added that he could see a case for legal changes to require the buffer zones for all "habitable" — not just "occupied" — residences to ensure that companies don’t jump to conclusions about vacant houses.

"I think you’re going to see a lot of developers being a lot more cautious about making sure that they're completely transparent about what's out there," said Commissioner Randy Christmann, who estimated the company's removal costs as "a seven figure job."

Minnesota Power has six months to remove its turbine under the commission's order. They could leave it down or erect it again in a new location. The company could still challenge the decision in court.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the name of Minnesota Power's parent company. It is Allete, not Allete Clean Energy.

Readers can reach reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com .

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