NEW CASTLE, Ind. – Dozens of residents came to a Wednesday night county commissioner’s meeting thinking they still had one more chance to sway county commissioners to vote “no” to Apex Clean Energy and its wind turbines.
But they soon found out their input and a vote by the commissioners weren’t need all.
As the commissioners discussed the legal review of the road agreement wind energy opponents thought was necessary for the project, a $300 million capital investment, to move forward, a county attorney spoke up.
He informed the commissioners that with the legal review complete, they didn’t need to have a public hearing. The commissioners had already approved the agreement in May.
“I asked specifically months ago, what had been done so far and what do we still need to do to move forward and there doesn’t seem to always be a straight answer,” said Henry County resident Susan Huhn, whose house is a mile-and-a-half from Phase 1 of the Apex project.
As confusion mounted in the room, the commissioners referred back to the minutes from the May meeting in question.
Indeed, they had already approved Apex’s Decommission Agreement, Economic Agreement for Apex and Road Use Agreement, pending legal review of the Road Use Agreement.
All the people in the audience could speak, but their opinions wouldn’t be taken into consideration. Apex’s wind turbines were a done deal no matter what happened at the meeting.
“We were led to believe that the road agreement still had to be passed,” said Huhn. “It was a placating tactic that the commissioners used. Don’t worry yet. We still have to get past the road agreement. Then we hear today. It doesn’t really matter if we pass the road agreement or not because they can go ahead without it.”
Not only was the agreement essentially already approved, but Apex didn’t even need one. According to their representative at the meeting, Erin Wiedower, they decided to move forward with one as an act of goodwill toward the community.
The county’s economic development corporation website clearly lists approved road use agreements as one of several necessary steps in the local approval process. Several county officials told FOX59 this as well, but it appears the Apex application didn’t require one.
Still, with Apex on board to finalize a road use agreement, the commissioners moved forward with one, telling residents they fought for the best agreement possible to help the county.
The initial agreement on file wasn’t the same as other road use agreements commissioners had previously approved. It didn’t require Apex to stabilize the roads before hauling in heavy construction materials, leaving the county vulnerable, the commissioners stated.
The agreement they approved Wednesday night, was filed by Apex and reviewed by the county’s legal time earlier in the day. That’s the agreement, the commissioners ended up rubber stamping, which they argued showed their willingness to negotiate and fight for the best possible option in the community.
But that argument ignores the fact that Apex didn’t technically have to agree to any road use agreement to start filing permits to build in the county.
But they did and Wiedower says they won’t start constructing before next spring.
Resident David Herring believes it shouldn’t have been Apex’s choice to sign a road use agreement. But he says they made the right one considering trust issues people in the community have had with them since the last time the line item was on the commissioners’ agenda in May.
“When I saw the text messages, my first thought was, this can’t be happening,” said Herring. You know this doesn’t happen. This is the stuff you see in movies and whatnot.”
Several text messages between a former Apex employee and commissioner Kim Cronk’s neighbor raised eyebrows earlier this year.
The neighbor, who testified in favor of a tax abatement for Apex, asked the employee, “Might there be a job for me with Apex/Flat Rock in the future?”
The employee responded, “Deliver Kim and we’ll talk,” referencing commissioner Kim Cronk.
Cronk immediately distanced himself from the messages, saying he never communicated with the employee, nor did he discuss Apex’s subsequent investigation with company officials.
During the meeting, he expressed his displeasure that the situation unfairly put him in the spotlight for something he had no control over.
Wiedower says the company’s investigation led to “personnel changes”. The company’s public affairs manager specifically stated that the employee who sent the messages no longer works for the company.
“We’ve made reparations and rebuilt that trust and it won’t be an issue going forward,” said Wiedower.
Some people say all of this controversy, plus the turbines likely coming soon, has them ready to pack up and get out.
“I’ve got my house up for sale,” said David Herring. “That’s what we have to do. We have to move.”
But others are happy to see another wind company approved.
Over the life of the project, landowners, including commissioner Ed Yanos, stand to get payments of $20.9 million total.
Apex is planning $2.6 million in direct payments to local schools and a one-time payment of $2.4 million to the economic development corporation. Their project, Flat Rock Wind, is also estimated to provide $18 million in property tax revenue during the life of the wind turbines.
With the tax abatement, the project will bring in just $140,000 in new tax revenue a year for the first ten years. When it ends, the project will pay an estimated $450,000 in tax revenue every year.
The $300 million capital investment would also make it one of the largest in the county ever.
But commissioner Kim Cronk says people who were angry tonight should remember that all these numbers and figures aren’t a sure bet.
NextEra, the first clean energy company to get approval for a major wind energy operation, has yet to file a single permit for a turbine in the county. Cronk says that could happen here.
Apex officials though, seem set on sticking to their plan.
Despite rejections by Rush County officials that have stalled the other half of the project while they appeal the decision in court, the public affairs manager says that will not impact their move into Henry County.