Mason Residents Resist Unwelcome Wind Project

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Mason residents: "What do we want the Hill Country to look like?" PHoto via Wikipedia

MASON, Texas – Adding a wind farm to its Lone Star energy portfolio in the scenic Texas Hill Country is proving to be much tougher than setting up shop on the high Texas plains for Enel Green Power North America. Folks in Mason, where construction of the wind project is proposed, believe that wind turbines just don’t belong here.

The Italian energy giant has plans for development of the Mason Mountain Wind Project (MMWP) not far from the historic community of 2,077 that bills itself as “The Gem of the Texas Hill Country.”

no wind turbines

Mason, Texas says no, thanks to wind farm project. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Six landowners are providing access and easements on thousands of acres of land to the Rome, Italy-based energy conglomerate, which, like other energy powerhouses, wants to cash in on the Texas wind rush and generous government subsidies offered to renewable energy companies.  Enel already operates the 63-megawatt Snyder Wind Farm with 21 turbines in Hermleigh, Texas, about 80 miles northwest of Abilene. Details of the Mason project – how many megawatts, how many turbines, how tall they would be, does Enel have an interconnection agreement with a transmission provider to move the electricity to the grid – remain a secret.

That lack of transparency only heightens local suspicions.

“I haven’t heard anybody voice a positive opinion of the project,” said Mason Mayor Brent Hinckley, who voiced strong opposition five years ago to the intrusion of major electric transmission lines that would have cut across some of the county’s most scenic vistas. “An overwhelming number of people have told me they don’t want that in our community,” he said, recalling a Town Hall earlier this summer attended by more than 200 residents.

Enel isn’t saying much. The company responded to phone, email and social media briefing requests with this statement: “Enel Green Power North America continues to explore various opportunities throughout the U.S. for renewable energy growth, and at this time the company’s presence in Mason and Menard Counties is still in the very early stages.”

“They’ve been keeping a very low profile,” said Gerry Gamel, the longtime editor of the Mason County News, a weekly newspaper that has been publishing since 1877. The publication has been the primary stage for MMWP opposition and for what little information is available to county residents.

“I’m going to quit buying Italian wine,” wrote Ron Crocker of nearby Long Mountain in a letter to the editor, encouraging others to do the same. “Leave the Hill Country alone. Build them in Washington where the blowhards constantly bloviate,” he wrote July 29. Crocker’s ranch looks right over the proposed MMWP site.

Leading the charge against the wind turbines is the Texas Hill Country Heritage Association (THCHA). The determined group of 485 members, founded in 2011, aims to “protect the Texas Hill Country’s heritage, property, environment and economy.” THCHA has placed several editorials in the Mason County News opposing the project and engaged Braun & Gresham, the Dripping Springs law firm that specializes in rural landowner management, to assist with strategy.

llano River

Llano River in Mason, Texas. Do wind turbines belong here? Photo courtesy Llano River Region Adventures.

Settled by Germans in the mid-1800s, Mason has always had a stubborn independent streak synonymous with pioneer self-determinism. Many family ranches trace their heritage to the original settlers in the region, and families who move to the area or invest in ranches as a second home are still referred to as “newcomers” years after their arrival.

The community successfully defeated the installation of high voltage CREZ (Community Residential Energy Zone) power lines through its karst-riddled hills back in 2010. The mammoth power poles and high voltage lines move wind energy from West Texas to big cities like Dallas and Houston. Because of stiff opposition by Mason County residents and others, lines were rerouted into Kimble County, and run along the IH-10 corridor.

Locals have repeatedly shunned approval of liquor-by-the-drink, even though alcohol sales and the accompanying sales taxes would be an economic boon to the economically challenged county. Mason prides itself on authenticity and is mighty proud of the glorious rock courthouse on Mason Square, declared one of the five most picturesque in the state by Texas Monthly Magazine.

The town is also proud on its healthy second home market for Austin, San Antonio, Houston and Dallas residents, as well as a thriving hunting, fishing and nature escape businesses.

Tony Plutino moved to Mason in 2002 after working 20 years at Motorola in Austin. These days he owns several rental properties in Mason and runs a kayaking and canoeing outfitter, Llano Region River Adventures.

Like many residents, Plutino expressed concerns about the impact of the MMWP on property values, but he’s more worried about how it might set a precedent for future development.

“The sand plants create light, noise, dust and traffic issues. The defeated (for now) CREZ Line would have been a massive visual blight,” he said. “An attempt to put a small dam on the James River would have impacted many for the sake of recreation for a very few….How much environmental degradation can we absorb before the Hill Country we value so highly now is but a memory?”

“Mason is an inappropriate place for a wind project,” said lifelong resident and real estate broker Lee McMillan. “Our fiber is recreation and retirement, and nobody wants to live by a wind farm,” he said. “There’s other areas that are more industrial, and I assume it’s appropriate in that situation.”

McMillan’s family has run the Mason Feed Store since 1948, where friendly staff still help customers load pick up trucks with 50 lb. bags of wildlife feed that fuel the county’s robust hunting economy. “Back then, we sold cattle and hog feed. These days, it’s deer corn and bird seed.”

McMillan said landowners directly affected by the wind turbines could see the value of their real estate drop 25-40%.

A further complication for the potential MMWP is Mason’s Eckert James River Bat Cave Preserve, one of the largest female bat colonies in the state. Last week, Bat Conservation International (BCI) visited the community to discuss the ramifications of the MMWP with concerned citizens.

The Enel project could cause serious damage to the 100 million bats that move and migrate seasonally through the Texas Hill Country, according to Andy Walker of BCI. Four million maternal Mexican free-tailed bats reside at the Eckert James River Cave, which is run by the Nature Conservancy of Texas. The cave brings thousands of visitors to Mason.  Studies show that wind turbines typically kill 6% of the bat population in a given area, according to Walker. The nocturnal mammals mistake the wind towers for trees and approach them to roost. The giant rotating blades of the turbines kill the bats.

Eckert James River Bat Cave

Four million Mexican free-tailed bats reside in Mason at the Eckert James River Bat Cave Preserve. Photo courtesy The Nature Conservancy of Texas

The benefits of a robust bat population are well documented. They keep mosquitoes in check and provide millions of dollars of free ecosystem services to cotton and pecan farmers – both agricultural crops in Mason County. Bats eat 80% of their weight in insects each evening, including the pecan nut casebearer and the cotton bollworm moth. Controlling these agricultural pest populations translates into higher yields and more income for farmers.

The proposed MMWP site also is prime habitat for the Black-capped vireo and Golden-cheeked warbler, both listed as endangered species. A three-day rapid assessment commissioned by Braun & Gresham in June found nearly 200 Black-capped vireos breeding in or near the MMWP site, making it all but certain that the project area is home to the largest population of the endangered birds ever discovered in this portion of their range, according to Certified Wildlife Biologist Jennifer Blair, who conducted the survey.

Meanwhile, THCHA and local elected officials are not letting up. Mason County Judge Jerry Bearden told the Dallas Morning News that a tax abatement requested informally by Enel was not in the cards.  Mason Mayor Hinckley agreed. “We pretty much would say no to tax abatements,” he said.

THCHA has scheduled meetings with elected officials to rally support in Austin. State Sen. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock), chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Water, and Rural Affairs will be in town Oct. 7 for a previously scheduled Town Hall. THCHA representatives plan to meet with him.  A briefing occurred this week between THCHA members and State Rep. Andy Murr (R-Junction).

“It went well,” said Patti Myrick, THCHA president. “This is not just about protecting Mason County,” she said. “We’re looking at the larger picture down the road, protecting the Texas Hill Country as a region. The real question is: What do we want the Texas Hill Country to look like?”

*Top image: Mason residents: “What do we want the Hill Country to look like?”  Photo via Wikipedia.

UPDATE:  A previous version of this story stated the MMWP was proposed six miles from Mason. A spokesperson for Enel responded that “the project would be 18-20 miles away from Mason the town (not 6); leases have been in place for seven years, with extensions secured over two years ago.”

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16 thoughts on “Mason Residents Resist Unwelcome Wind Project

  1. The issue of Hill Country industrial wind farm development has been smoldering for years and is largely kept from public view because of the secretive nature of the companies in their land acquisition activities. As you have shown, they are kept secret for a reason. Wind turbine complexes require huge amounts of land and accompanying transmission infrastructure that result in visual blight and landscape transformation on unprecedented scales. We have seen this scenario played out in small communities across the country, often resulting in deep and lasting community divisions. The Hill Country is no place for industrial wind development. Thanks for keeping the light shining on this issue.

  2. So residents of Mason (population 2,200) have been urged to boycott Italian wine, eh? Not to belittle these Hill Country residents’ concerns, but I’m sure the economy of Italy can withstand (if even notice) that boycott, even if it were expanded to include Italian olive and tomato products. Are Fox News-informed conservatives still boycotting French fries?

  3. John, you have locked on to substance of this issue with laser like precision. NOT !!
    The efforts of THCHA have nothing to do with wine, the Italian economy, political affiliation, or preferred news outlets.
    Please contact Enel and have them erect one of these 500 foot tall puppies in YOUR backyard and get back to us with your assessment. Enjoy your fries and read the article a few more times.

    • I did read the article sufficiently, Ed, to understand the property-owners’ concerns about the unstated intentions of Enel. I didn’t need to read the article to understand that the Hill Country is indeed very scenic. I’ve known that since my teenage years.
      I’d suggest you read my post again (and maybe the article itself).
      I wasn’t criticizing the Mason County population’s concerns about Enel’s plans; I was merely questioning the effectiveness of a boycott by a single Texas county of internationally marketed products as urged by “Ron Crocker of nearby Long Mountain in a letter to the editor.”
      As for erecting a 500-ft wind turbine in my backyard….I never considered myself much of NIMBY-type so if you (or Enel) wanted to ply me with a fat variance premium, bring it on dude. On one condition: I’ll take the turbine if you get my neighbor’s dogs to stop barking whenever I’m (silently) in my backyard or trying to sleep at night. Deal?
      Everything is relative, amigo.
      Also, my backyard hardly compares to the average Hill Country ranch property, so I suggested recalibrating your laser when using the term “backyard.”

      • John, you should hold out for a VERY SUBSTANTIAL variance premium. While you would no longer be bothered by your neighbor’s barking dogs ( the neighbors would all sell out and move away ) , the market value of your home would decrease significantly , leaving you very little equity in your investment.
        While your back yard may not compare to the average Hill Country ranch, I suspect that your neighbor’s dogs do not stand 500 feet tall, nor do they produce the noise pollution generated by wind turbines. So indeed, everything IS relative , amigo.
        By the way, I know Ron Crocker personally. He is a very intelligent man and I am certain that he is aware that the boycott he proposed would have little effect on Enel’s decision making process. I suspect he was attempting to interject a bit of humor into an otherwise disturbing situation.

        • Ed, you have no idea of the value of my home in dollars nor in its emotional value to me. And it seems we do not share similar stances on the concept of private property rights.
          Hell, I’d be ecstatic if the city or the feds offered me a chunk o’ change to take my little urban lot by imminent domain to make a flood plain or whatever as was done recently about six blocks from me. As we’ve both pointed out, everything is indeed relative.
          I never questioned Ron Crocker’s intelligence; I merely questioned his boycott tactic. If he was indeed attempting humor, as you contend, then that “joke” certainly ranks with freedom fries, but we’ve already covered that. It seems to me it would be more effective to try to convince the six property owners considering selling to Enel to not make that deal, rather than urging folks to not grab that bottle of tasty Lambrusco in HEB.
          NIMBY-ism can be powerful. But sometimes we have to bear the brunt of a changing world. I’m still trying to figure out how car manufacturers were allowed to produce cars that honk (quite loudly in most models) whenever they are locked remotely. So much for the value of my personal space as I’m walking thru a parking lot or trying to sleep when my party-animal neighbor gets home at 2:15 am and announces his locked car to the ‘hood with a triple horn blast.
          I’m glad we agree that everything is relative.
          I truly hope your backyard is not marred by Enel’s turbines. Seriously. And I hope my neighbors take responsibility for their barking dogs and their unnecessarily honking cars.

          • John, I do believe we have approached common ground. I do appreciate your sentiment regarding our ability to stop the construction of the wind farm .
            You nailed it when you stated that you have emotional value in your house, in addition to the absolute monetary value. This is probably similar to the emotional value that we perceive regarding the Hill Country. Impossible to assign a dollar amount, agreed ? Unfortunately, the presence of the turbines on our horizons would significantly decrease both the emotional and dollar values for our homes, and we will not be receiving any financial compensation (chunk of change) from Enel or the Feds.
            In terms of private property rights, I am a native Texan and will fight to the end to maintain those rights. The dilemma arises when my rights to alter my property negatively impact the rights of neighboring land owners. I’m not always comfortable with the concept of “the greater good” (see Atlas Shrugged), but in this instance , I believe this should be a consideration for all involved. I would like to think, that as a good steward of my land, I will leave it in such a state that future generations will be able to enjoy the same serenity and beauty that I have been privileged to enjoy.
            There are plenty of other “back yards” in the vast remote areas of Texas, with far better and and more consistent wind quantities, where the cactus and tumble weeds would not be bothered by these giant turbines.
            When barking dogs and honking cars have you dangling by your last thread, would it not be nice to know that you could travel to a nearby area to enjoy a few hours, or days , where those annoyances could be avoided , or at least mitigated ? The Hill Country offers that opportunity today , for present and future generations. We are in a fight to preserve this refuge for the future .
            I’ll be signing off now. Good luck with your noisy neighbors, and I hope that you can come visit the Hill Country soon.

  4. The MMWP is approximately 12 miles from the courthouse square. Mason is about 1539 ft above sea level and the Mason/Long Mountain area is 2100 ft above sea level. The 500+ foot difference makes the area visible for many, many miles surrounding the project. Imagine an additional 500 ft turbine atop those scenic hills.

  5. Wind turbines will make a whole lot more money for the rancher than cattle, goats, or hunting. Bring them on. BTW, talk to some folks that are in favor of progress; not those that want to live in the past.

  6. Thanks, Mason, for the power lines (transmission infrastructure) I now see from my deck in Kerr County. Glad you didn’t get them; very sorry we did. They are horrible blights on the landscape, took homes, created wide ugly rights of way. No redeeming features except sometimes the vultures sit on them.
    Continue to fight and good luck with that. Greedy landowners care only about money. CREZ is a bully organization. Keep trying!

  7. Your economy is in the toilet. Your graduates leave and few return. Your land is being bought out as hobby farms and you are complaining about a global leader investing in you town all because of a few bats. Sounds like there are a few land owners that got excluded from the deal and are a little sour.

  8. This article is well written and captures the essence of a very complicated issue facing the good citizens of Mason County. Those same citizens have legitimate and rational justifications for not wanting the wind farm. It is their choice to resist the project. And it is the very large majority of the folks who are opposed (despite whatever the token idiot internet troll Okie thinks he knows!).
    I live adjacent to the proposed wind farm. It will ruin my place. No debate necessary. It is much closer to the town square than Enel admits to in their “correction”, but that is the way the wind farm hustlers work. Total secrecy!
    Trolls like Johann just like to see their name on the page and cowardly( will not put their last name)post comments about things they clearly know nothing about. And John Daniels needs to take a laxative and watch a late nite talk show because he can’t even recognize simple sarcasm!
    When posting a blog one needs to expect some non-helpful responses. We do not expect all the readers to understand our fight so we invite any and all to come and visit with us about it. Once you do, you will understand why wind farms do not belong in the Hill Country!

    • Thanks, G.T., for your concern about my intestinal integrity. Sorry to disappoint you, but all is glorious in that department. If you require proof, I will be happy to mail you a specimen of such. Gee, I hope that sarcasm was sufficiently simple for you to grasp as such.
      Alas, I am unable to heed your advice to rely on late-night TV for lessons in sarcasm because I don’t own a television set. I do, however, own a library card so have access to stellar examples of sarcastic humor should I desire any.
      What initially prompted me to comment on the “boycott Italian wine” statement is that it struck me as annoying idiotic knee-jerk nation-bashing (enhanced with more of that over-used anti-Washington crack — Congress is dysfunctional? Really? Who knew?).
      Too many Texans rely on blaming “the other” for problems that have nothing to do with nationality (or race or or gender or…get my point?). That such a statement would be made by a THCHA board member was startling. Anger directed at Enel is justifiable and even though 25% of Enel is an Italian national asset, painting anything Italian as evil is not. If Enel were based in Edinburgh, would Crocker have advocated boycotting Scotch tape?
      Saying such, whether sarcastically or with steely intent, draws attention away from the issue and focuses on “the other.” Surely a THCHA director is capable of elucidating a stance that does not rely on what comes across as yet more tiresome stereotypical good ol’ boy yammering.
      By the way, I am not now nor ever have been Italian.

  9. I’m dumbfounded. So little concern for the health of residents, the potential for silicosis and other diseases connected to silica sand, and the general respiratory problems that come about from the mining of frac sand–and yet there’s an outcry about wind turbines? Talk about misplaced priorities. One of my colleagues is suffering from scleroderma, likely as a result of exposure from sand mining elsewhere; she’s a young mother, faced with all of the chronic and progressive symptoms that will develop from this deadly disease. I would not wish that on anyone. Too bad the vigilance of Mason’s citizens only extends to wind turbines.

    • This post suggests that Mason residents are OK with sand plants. They are not – and there was a serious resistance to their locating here. What Ms. Burgin should know is that without some meaningful changes made to the laws in the State of Texas which actually allows industrial development in rural areas regardless of prevailing land uses, this will continue on unabated. The Erna sand plant “sprung up” literally overnite and what was a quite and peaceful rural area of ranching and agriculture, is now a noisy and dusty industrial site. It is a true travesty but alas, it cannot and will not be undone!

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