Culver Academies Head of Schools discuses wind farm proposition

Culver Academies, acknowledges Head of Schools John Buxton, has been noticably silent regarding one issue it seems is on nearly everyone's tongues: the proposed placement of a "wind farm" of some 60 wind turbines, each around 500 feet high, in the Fulton and Marshall County areas. Specifically, a number of the towers are likely to be visible from various points along Lake Maxinkuckee, a fact which has led various entities -- including the Lake Maxinkuckee Environmental Council and Culver's parks and recreations board -- to make formal statements against the project. It has also led to speculation as to the position of the Academies -- the largest employer in Marshall County -- on the hotly debated matter.

"We have a lot of unanswered questions," says Buxton of the project. "For a certain percentage of the population, this looks like a very attractive revenue source. For another group, this represents a loss of value in property that generations of families have worked to build.

"We understand there could be environmental factors people are worried about that could be potentially negative," he adds, pointing out studies raising concerns about bird and bat kills due to the turbines.

"Because we don't feel we're going to be the direct beneficiary of this project, and it isn't clear there are...necessarily negative outcomes, we will feel as a result it would be inappropriate to us, in our position as the largest employer in Marshall County...to take a position for or against this. We don't know enough to be for it. But we have enough concerns to be negative about it. I do know that dozens and dozens -- maybe even hundreds -- of employees of the Academies have signed petitions to try and stop (it), so one could conclude the Academies, informally, are not supporting this project."

Buxton notes the wind farm as a revenue source for the county is an "obvious positive" to the project, as could be potential benefits to a population of "farmers or landowners who have been unable to generate satisfactory revenue from their holdings" or local school systems generating revenue, as has occurred in other parts of the country, from similar projects.

"But there's always a, 'Yes, but...'" Buxton adds.

He notes laws in some areas are being amended due to abuses of similar endeavors. There are also infrastructure concerns over potential damage to fields and compaction of road systems emanating from heavy equipment used to bring the towers here. There are also lingering questions, he says, over what happens when the towers become obsolete.

"Are there appropriate and sufficient funds to remove them? If their shelf life is five to seven years, what happens when they no longer work or they're no longer the current technology? How much money will the power company be willing to put into restoration of the landscape?"

The Academies, he adds, is also concerned over "some of the unknowns about how livestock will respond. We have 100 horses here. We also don't know what the effect will be on those living directly (adjacent to the turbines). This doesn't appear to be abutting the Academies directly, but we really don't know. We're not absolutely clear about that.

"We've heard in other communities there's been concern that the fire department and counties don't have the equipment that can rescue anyone who might be working on these and becomes injured while adjusting something on this giant blade. We don't have any (ladder) that goes 450 feet.

"We've been told about foundations. Think of a 45-story building. The steel and concrete in the ground -- will it be removed? You're taking that much agrarian landscape and turning it into basically an underground mosoleum."

Buxton says there's been no direct contact with him from anyone representing either the county or the sponsoring company -- Nextera, a subsidiary of Florida Power and Light -- though there may have been "some preliminary contact with our Facilities department because over a period of five years, we've been looking at various ways we could be involved in renewable energy -- solar primarily -- initiatives at the school. But nothing that approaches the scale of what Florida Power and Light is talking about.

"We might feel a little more postively about it if we believed Marshall County were benefiting directly from the energy generated," he continues. "We might feel differently if we didn't believe that the primary incentive for (the company) had to do with financial incentives for them to be in this market, as opposed to making a huge difference in the life of people in north central Indiana. In many ways, this appears to be a 'follow the money' proposal. There are short-term, immediate financial benefits for the company that may not accrue in our part of the world.

"We understand they're in business to make a profit, but the benefits are not as obvious to us with the exception of leasing revenues for land owners' property."

The proximity of the project to a "nexus point on the grid" for distributing the energy generated, Buxton says, is also understood as a motivation for the project's locale, rather than the area's capacity to generate wind speed.

Buxton says he's driven past the well-known wind farm in the Lafayette area on a few occasions, "and it really is unattractive. I understand sometimes, in order to do the right thing, you can't get both form and function. But I think the ecosystem that is a county can be thrown out of balance remarkably quickly if any one part of that particular population is impacted negatively.

"If, in fact, land values were to change dramatically, you might have an exodus from the Culver community that could be incredibly negative for the county as a whole. We have a very interesting set of demongraphics here. Each one of the groups relies on the other. A healthy lake community translates into a healthy school system, translates into the health of the town. When you have a group of people that it's very clear will be negatively impacted -- which you do with the lake people -- it raises concerns on our part that we may be trifling with a balance here that is essential for the well-being of the entire community. Those are the unknowns."

And the unattractiveness of the project, he says, is really just the surface of a deeper concern.

"We could be creating the equivalent of an industrial park in a really beautiful, small-town, Indiana setting. That would have a really unfortunate impact. Culver really is a bit of a tourist town -- it's beaucolic. It's a pristine setting in so many ways, and our town has been so attentive to cleaning up various areas (in recent years), and all of a sudden we will have an entire landscape dominated by machines.
Culver Academies, emphasizes its Head of Schools, wants to be a good neighbor.

"Any time we see something happening which will bring direct benefit to our town, we're happy to be supportive of it. We're also interested in the well-being of the county. But those benefits are not as obvious to us as they need to be for us to make a strong statement of support."
Discussion of the project, Buxton adds, "shouldn't devolve into a debate about those who have resources and those who don't. There are obvious benefits for people who could gain financially from this opportunity, but this isn't just about that. It really is much more about culture and appropriate fit. Even in Denmark, where there are thousands of these things, they're trying to move them offshore."

The Academies, says Buxton, understood "early in this process" that the Marshall County BZA's decision would be made via assessment of the public's response, "as opposed to any individual businesses or organizations' response -- that this would be decided in the court of public opinion...and to the extent that a petition is filed, members of this community will come forward and make their opinions known and that should really speak most loudly to the board members."