Iowa Court Agrees that Three Wind Turbines Not Authorized on Agricultural Land

February 23, 2018 | Kristine A. Tidgren

The Iowa Court of Appeals recently found that Fayette County improperly granted permits to a wind energy group to build three wind turbines on agricultural land. This opinion leaves in effect a district court order that directed the group to remove the turbines.

A Fayette County couple granted easements to several wind development companies to construct three wind turbines on their farmland. The wind group applied to the Fayette County Board of Adjustment (Board) for special use permits to construct the turbines, and the Board denied the application.

The county administrator then requested a legal opinion from the county attorney, who determined that the wind turbines would qualify as “electrical transmission and regulating facilities,” so as to exempt them from the need for a special use permit. This opinion was based upon the attorney’s interpretation of the county’s zoning ordinance, which lists the “permitted uses” for agriculturally-zoned districts to include facilities such as airports, cemeteries, sewage treatment facilities, and “electrical and natural gas transmission and regulating facilities.”

Based upon the attorney’s opinion, the administrator approved the wind group’s applications for zoning compliance. The City of Fairbank, as well as some residents and businesses, appealed the approval, arguing that the wind turbines would disrupt the use and enjoyment of their land and diminish the value of the property in and around the city. The Board denied the appeals.

On review, the district court declared the approvals of the applications for zoning compliance “illegal and void.” The court found that a wind turbine was “not an electrical transmission and regulating facility” within the meaning of the zoning ordinance. The district court directed the group to remove “all structures which were erected without valid permits as determined by the court.” The wind group and the Board appealed.

The Iowa Court of Appeals affirmed, agreeing that a wind turbine that produces electricity is not an electrical transmission and regulating facility. The court began with the “undisputed” premise that wind turbines “generate” electricity. The court found, however, that, on the basis of the record before it, the wind turbines did not “transmit” and “regulate” electricity within the meaning of the ordinance. The ordinance did not define those terms, but the court agreed with the district court that “as commonly understood,” the language would not encompass wind turbines.

This opinion was a win for the parties seeking to keep wind turbines out of their neighborhood. We will watch for an appeal.

The case is Woods v. Fayette Cty. Zoning Bd. of Adjustment, No. 17-0090 (Iowa Ct. App. Feb. 21, 2018).