A battle over wind energy development in Nebraska’s Sand Hills will head to court this week as an advocacy group attempts to stop a controversial project in Cherry County.
A lawsuit filed earlier this month claims two Cherry County Board members stand to financially gain from approval of a 19-turbine wind farm planned west of Kilgore because of familial connections to the project — a project they’re scheduled to vote on this week.
The filing, which will go before a judge in Holt County on Monday, seeks to prohibit board members Martin DeNaeyer and Tanya Storer from “hearing, discussing, considering, influencing or voting” on the project.
At a public hearing Tuesday, the three-member County Board is scheduled to vote on a conditional use permit application by developer BSH Kilgore.
The lawsuit was brought by Preserve the Sandhills — a group of 500 ranchers, property owners and residents working to protect the prairies and sand dunes covering north-central Nebraska — and Charlene Reiser-McCormick, a Valentine landowner.
If District Judge Mark Kozisek grants the injunction, the County Board would lack a two-member majority to vote on the permit. Multiple people involved with the lawsuit said it’s unclear how things would proceed if that happens.
According to the filing, DeNaeyer’s wife, Bree DeNaeyer, sits on the board of directors for Cherry County Wind LLC, which formed in 2012 to connect its investor landowners with the project’s developer.
Her position with Cherry County Wind “automatically disqualifies (Martin DeNaeyer) from considering the application,” the suit states.
She told a legislative committee in 2017 that group members expect to share in wind-farm profits, the complaint says.
The suit also says DeNaeyer’s mother, Lyn Joanne Messersmith, has “significant financial interest” in the application because she has leased land to Cherry County Wind LLC.
Property owners who lease land to wind energy developers receive money for housing turbines, access roads or generators on their land.
Storer has several family members with a stake in the project, according to the suit, including brothers Todd and Taylor Adamson, sister Tracy Olson, sister-in-law Kerri Adamson, parents Jerry and Deloris Adamson and others.
Storer’s brother Todd Adamson is a Cherry County Wind board member. Seven other members of Storer’s family are part of Cherry County Wind’s membership.
“All we’re looking for is that this matter be determined by people who don’t have a vested interest in the outcome,” said Jason Bruno, the Omaha attorney representing Preserve the Sandhills.
Storer declined to comment Friday because of the impending hearing. DeNaeyer did not return phone and email messages from The World-Herald.
In a potential conflict of interest statement submitted to the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission in May, Storer outlined her brothers’ connections to the project, acknowledging her understanding that either of her brothers stands to “benefit financially” from the project’s approval.
In a similar statement submitted to the commission in February, DeNaeyer wrote that he does not believe a conflict of interest exists.
He wrote that because he leases land from his mother — a member of Cherry County Wind — she would potentially receive money from the project, but he would not.
And his wife, who is on the board of Cherry County Wind, is a “non-land owner member” and does not receive money for serving on the board, he wrote.
“I do not to my knowledge have any financial ties to Cherry County Wind LLC,” DeNaeyer concluded.
The lawsuit claims DeNaeyer and Storer have ignored demands to recuse themselves from the vote and plan to participate “despite their obvious conflicts of interests.”
The current proposed wind farm is a scaled-down version of a 30-turbine, $108 million project sought in 2016 that was rejected by the Cherry County Board. Jim Van Winkle, then a board member, had abstained from voting because of his membership in Cherry County Wind.
BSH Kilgore is part of Bluestem Sandhills, a joint venture of Omaha-based Bluestem Energy Solutions and Sandhills Wind Energy of Valentine.
Those for and against wind energy development have long debated the health, monetary, environmental and aesthetic impacts of wind farms.
Craig Andresen, communications director for Preserve the Sandhills, said some people living near wind turbines have reported health issues including nausea, sleep disorders and fatigue.
The group also argues that property values near the wind farm will be devalued by the presence of the turbines.
Proponents of wind energy point to the money generated by such farms that goes to property owners and local governments.
They also argue that wind power is a clean, cheaper alternative to other energy sources.
Andresen said Preserve the Sandhills is trying to protect the scenic views of the distinctive Sand Hills, which were designated as a National Natural Landmark in 1984.
“People come out to the Sand Hills for the wide open spaces,” Andresen said. “Each of the turbines is going to be taller than the State Capitol building in Lincoln.”
Monday’s hearing is scheduled for 2 p.m. at the Holt County Courthouse in O’Neill.
The public hearing is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Valentine High School auditorium, 431 N. Green St.
Those wishing to attend are asked to enter through the south doors by the music room.
Todd von Kampen of the World-Herald News Service contributed to this report.