Protesters fighting against eight new wind turbines in Kahuku say the machines will be “too big and too close” when they’re standing 1,700 feet from the nearest property.

But that distance – about a third of a mile – is above and beyond the setback distance required by Honolulu law. Wind farm developers are allowed to put industrial turbines as close to neighbors’ property lines as the height of the turbines.

In the case of Kahuku’s new turbines, that’s 568 feet.

“Just because it’s legal doesn’t make it right,” said Neva Fotu, a Kahuku resident who can see one of a dozen existing turbines from an armchair in her living room. “That shouldn’t be the law.”

Neva Fotu stands near her house with Kahuku windmills in the background.

Neva Fotu is debating selling her home because of the wind turbines near by.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

If Kahuku’s residents have their way, it won’t be the law much longer. Community members are lobbying legislators such as Sen. Gil Riviere, who said he is drafting legislation to increase setback distances for turbines.

“I’m just trying to prevent the rest of the island from having to live with the things the Kahuku community is going to have to live with,” said Kamalani Keliikuli, vice president of Ku Kia’i Kahuku, a community group fighting against additional turbines.

The effort follows an attempt in 2015 to scrutinize wind energy projects more closely. House Bill 1384 would have required a Land Use Commission review of all wind turbines over 100 kilowatts and within three-quarters of a mile of a residential, school, hospital or business property line.

The bill doesn’t say that the commission could have halted a project, only that it had to review the permit applications. The measure died in committee.

It’s time to discuss setbacks again, Riviere said. He hasn’t figured out the details, but he feels turbines should be at least a mile away from communities.

Kahuku Turbines arrive with Senator Gil Riviere on Friday, October 18, 2019.

Sen. Gil Riviere protested with residents against the installation of eight new wind turbines in Kahuku.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“With this attention that’s happening, I think this next session will be a good opportunity to have that conversation,” he said, adding that action may be needed on the local level. “It’s a land use issue, which is usually deferred to the counties.”

Honolulu City Councilwoman Heidi Tsuneyoshi did not respond to a request for comment but has previously expressed her support for the Kahuku residents protesting the wind turbines.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s office also did not respond to a question about his stance on wind turbine setback distances. Neither did representatives for Gov. David Ige.

“From Sherwoods to Mauna Kea to rail, nobody is thinking about us,” Fotu said. “It’s money, money, money.”

Fotu bought her Kahuku home in 2013, about two years after about a dozen turbines began operating there. Soon after, Fotu said she started experiencing earaches, dizziness, fainting, migraines and trouble sleeping. When the turbines are off, she sleeps better, she said.

“Nobody wants to live next to them,” said Fotu, one of more than 100 people who have been arrested while protesting the turbines.

Joshua Kaina had a similar experience. When he was living in Kaneohe, he had no opinion about wind turbines and didn’t pay much attention when protesters started fighting them in Kahuku, he said.

That changed when he moved to Kahuku and started experiencing ringing in his ears, nausea, dizziness, poor sleep quality and other symptoms. Like Fotu, Kaina said his sleep quality improves when the turbines are off.

With eight new turbines under construction, Kaina said he’s worried about his symptoms worsening.

“I live almost 2 miles away from the current turbines,” Kaina said. “The new ones will be about 1,900 feet away from me.”

Neva Fotu’s iving room view of a Kahuku windmill. She was not happy about this.

Neva Fotu can see wind turbines from her living room.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A direct cause-and-effect relationship between wind turbines and health problems has not been scientifically proven. But neighbors of wind turbines all over the world have expressed concern that the machines are connected to negative health impacts.

At a minimum, many say living close to turbines means exposure to nuisance noise levels and maddening shadow flickers. People who live near wind turbines in Kahuku and elsewhere have also expressed concerns about “infrasound,” low-frequency noise that has been blamed for so-called “wind turbine syndrome” despite assurances from scientists that the claims are meritless.

“Whether it’s scientifically valid or not is not really material to me,” said Dawn Bruns, a Sunset Beach resident who believes wind turbines 3 miles from her home are the cause of her sleep disturbances and other issues. “I know that it is.”

Other Wind Farm Communities

The neighbor islands have different approaches when it comes to wind turbines’ distance to communities.

In Maui County, there are two potential options for wind farms: agricultural land or a state conservation district, according to Jacky Takakura, an administrative planning officer for the Maui County Department of Planning.

“If county ag, then a county special use permit would be needed, which would likely establish setbacks,” she said in an email. “If in the state conservation district, we don’t have land use regulatory authority.” Instead, those cases go to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Maui’s three wind farms operate in areas that are very remote, Takakura said.

Kauai doesn’t have wind turbines and likely won’t because of environmental laws that protect endangered sea birds, said Kauai Planning Department Director Kaaina Hull.  

Mainland jurisdictions handle wind turbine setback distances in various ways. Several of them demand more space between homes and turbines than Honolulu does.

Wyoming officials can only issue permits for wind turbines that are at a distance from a home of at least five-and-a-half times the height of the tower or 1,000 feet, whichever is greater. Kentucky requires facilities to be at least 1,000 feet from the property boundary and 2,000 feet from any residential neighborhood, school, hospital or nursing home facility.

In South Dakota, larger wind turbines must be set back at least 500 feet or 1.1 times the height of the tower, whichever is greater, from any property line.

As it is, Honolulu’s height-based law is “ridiculous,” said Fotu. She feels turbines have no business in a community’s backyard.

“It shouldn’t be anywhere near residents at all,” she said. “They need to be far away from us.”

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