Did Cherry Co Board have conflict of interest in wind farm vote?

Nov. 3, 2022, 9 p.m. ·

Photo from ground level looking up toward the top of a windmill. The sky is gray and cloudy.
The Nebraska Wind and Solar Conference will put the future of renewable energy under the microscope by discussing possible challenges, solutions, and areas of growth for the future of wind and solar energy in Nebraska. (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)

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A bitter dispute over a proposed wind farm in Cherry County lands before the Nebraska Supreme Court Friday morning. During oral arguments, opponents are expected to claim members of the county board had a conflict of interest in violation of state law, rendering the vote taken in 2021 unconstitutional.

The Justices must decide if District Court Judge Mark D. Kozisek made the right call in 2019 when he dismissed the lawsuit filed by Preserve the Sandhills, a group representing an estimated 500 local opponents of the wind farm.

Wind Farm near Ainsworth, Nebraska
Wind turbines near Ainsworth, Nebraska (Photo: CCW/Facebook)

Energy company BSH Kilgore proposes using ranch land in the historic Sandhills approximately 25 miles west of Valentine and 5 miles from the South Dakota border. The company’s local operations, Cherry County Wind and Bluestem Sandhills, LLC, consist largely of local investors and landowners.

Before construction could begin, the 19 wind turbines required a permit from the three-member Board of County Commissioners. Supporters cite the economic benefits of the rapidly growing alternate energy market for rural areas. In letters in local newspapers, board members claimed any project would have to “meet the highest standards available” in construction and minimize environmental impacts.

In court filings, some neighboring landowners claimed: “the landscape, scenery, wildlife, natural beauty, residences, and ranches will become polluted, tarnished, and damaged by wind turbines.” Some also cite the potential for a significant loss of value to their property if the project proceeds.

In advance of the vote, opponents also complained two of the three county commissioners and their families had ties with the project and could profit from annual lease payments of $10,000.

Bree DeNaeyer, the wife of county Commissioner Martin DeNaeyer, is a member of the Board of Directors of Cherry County Wind. In court documents, Cherry County maintains she “is not compensated in any form or fashion.”

The commissioners claim other relatives might have connections to the project, but they would not personally make money off the deal.

Protect the Sandhills sought an injunction in Cherry County District Court to stop the vote. Judge Kozisek ruled the group didn’t have legal standing to file the lawsuit, allowing the commissioners to approve the wind farm. The citizen’s group appealed to the Supreme Court.

During Friday morning’s hearing, opponents are expected to ask the Justices to rule the vote was unconstitutional because the elected officials abused their power.

Meanwhile, the development of the Sandhills wind farm remains on hold.