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."
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.
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.
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."