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Air becomes cash crop for N.D. landowners

KULM, N.D. - A twisted old wreck of a windmill lies at the edge of a wheat field on Victor Lagodinski's 5,000-acre farming operation. "I've got a friend who wants that for his yard," Lagodinski said, steering his pickup down a washboard-ridden to...

KULM, N.D. - A twisted old wreck of a windmill lies at the edge of a wheat field on Victor Lagodinski's 5,000-acre farming operation.

"I've got a friend who wants that for his yard," Lagodinski said, steering his pickup down a washboard-ridden township road that cuts across his land. The windmill gave way to the elements years ago on this third-generation farm, but Lagodinski figures it can be bent back in shape and have another life as a lawn ornament harkening days gone by.

Alongside the same road stands a gleaming white, 210-foot tower, topped by a giant GE turbine equipped with three 110-foot blades -- locked in place today but ready to turn at the whim of the wind.

Dust plumes rolling behind semis hauling blades and tower sections blot out Lagodinski's view as he drives. New roads jut across cropland, providing a path for heavy equipment to reach tower sites.

"I hate roads," Lagodinski said. "We put up with it. That's the way it goes, I guess."

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Lagodinski is among eight landowners south of North Dakota Highway 13 between Edgeley and Kulm leasing sites to Florida-based FPL Energy Group for towers and turbines that will generate power for Basin Electric Cooperative and Otter Tail Power Co.

Of the 41 towers rising from the Coteau Ridge, just one was built on Lagodinski's land. For that, he figures, he'll receive between $3,000 and $4,000 a year.

"That's sort of the national average," said Judi Anderson, community outreach manager for FPL Energy.

Lease payments are for the use of land occupied by the tower as well as a 50-foot-wide road easement for access from the township road.

Anderson said the easement agreements generally run 25 years, mirroring the purchased power agreements FPL Energy signs, in this case, with Otter Tail Power Co. and Basin Electric Power Cooperative.

"As a landowner, you wouldn't want to sign a lease for anything longer than the purchased power agreement. Why would you do that?" she said.

Mark Scallon, an attorney who worked with Edgeley leaders on the wind farm project, said some landowners in North Dakota have tied up land in lease agreements with third-party "speculators" who have been unable to deliver a wind energy developer.

Not a nuisance

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Farmers with towers on their land are able to farm right up to the tower perimeter, and can plant and harvest on all but a 12-foot-wide road easement.

Landowners with multiple towers, naturally, receive more. A landowner with four towers, for example, could expect as much as $16,000 a year in new income from a tower and easement lease.

Farm groups are watching wind development with interest. "We're very much interested in wind energy, particularly as it relates to the farmer or rancher," said Herb Manig, executive vice president of the North Dakota Farm Bureau.

Manig said that his farm and ranch advocacy group especially wants to ensure that payments to landowners are fair -- that they offer adequate compensation -- and equitable. "We don't want to see one landowner paid $2,000 and another $4,000 for having a tower on their land," Manig said.

Income is income, Lagodinski said. Younger farmers, working their land, need the money more than some who are retired and leasing their land to growers, he said.

"We get the joy of farming around them (wind towers)," Lagodinski added.

That's not so bad, he said. You can farm right up to them. It's not nearly the nuisance that, say, coyotes are. They threaten his 1,000 head of cattle. Or Canada Geese. They overstay their welcome here and eat Lagodinski's grain.

Lagodinski said he would have had more towers on his land, but other sites were rejected because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined they could endanger waterfowl.

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"These Canada Geese can be a real pain," he said. "We should get rid of some of them anyway. Chances are -- if we had a bird strike -- it might scare some away."

The Coteau Ridge was formed 12,000 years ago as glacial Lake Agassiz stalled on its southern push. Landowners on the ridge farm around hundreds of potholes, popular among pintail, mallard and shoveler ducks as well as all those geese so despised by Lagodinski.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which studied the ridge and potential impacts prior to the project, had a say in tower placement, according to Bob Vandenberg, service manager for the Kulm Wetland Management District.

"It's going to change the landscape," Vandenberg said. "The skyline will be different. That's for sure."

Beauty is in the eye of the tower's beholder.

Property values

According to a Renewable Energy Policy Project study presented last summer at Windpower 2003, an annual conference hosted by the American Wind Energy Association in Austin, Texas, utility-scale wind towers have no impact on property values.

The study looked at 25,000 property transactions, within the so-called "view shed" -- or the land area in which the towers are a predominant sky feature -- of wind farm projects, in more than 20 states in the last three years.

"We are pleased to see that the first systematic study on the issue of property values and wind power development yields the good news for landowners that wind projects do not harm view shed property values," said Randall Swisher, AWEA executive director.

In fact, the study found that "for the great majority of projects, the property values actually rose more quickly in the 'view shed' than they did in the comparable community."

The Gackles love seeing their five wind towers in the morning. From their farmstead -- patrolled by a black Labrador and four friendly kittens -- William Gackle and son, Fred, can't see them.

As soon as they hit the end of their drive, they can see the towering turbine blades turning against the western sky.

"It's not only economic value, but aesthetic value," Fred Gackle said.

"In my opinion, it adds to the landscape. When you look from a distance, they look like tiny pinwheels. When you're up close, you're dwarfed. They're awesome. I look at it as a privilege."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Gerry Gilmour at (701) 241-5560

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