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Firm drops wind-farm plan after annexation-repeal vote

by Dan Holtmeyer | March 3, 2016 at 1:12 a.m.
A map showing the Elm Springs addition.

The company that pushed to build a wind farm west of Springdale for more than a year is canceling the controversial project following the results of a special election Tuesday.

About 760 voters in the small town of Elm Springs decided by a roughly 2-1 margin to repeal last year’s annexation of the proposed project’s site, according to the unofficial results. The vote returned 312 acres and jurisdiction over the project to Washington County.

Dragonfly Industries International CEO Jody Davis said Wednesday afternoon the company wouldn’t continue its push with county officials and would move on to other projects.

Davis said a more detailed public statement on the decision would be forthcoming, but none came by Wednesday evening, and Davis didn’t return later messages.

Opponents of the project were jubilant at the news that a nearly 16-month fight was over.

“It feels wonderful,” said Jonathon Hamby, who lives next to the land just outside Elm Springs and helped rally the opposition. “It feels like redemption. It feels like all the things that we have been saying all along have come to light.”

Mayor Harold Douthit, who supported the plan as a way to help kick-start a town of about 1,700 residents, said he was ready to move on.

“While I am disappointed, I exercised my freedom of speech, the opponents exercised their freedom of speech, the citizens voted. That’s called democracy,” he said. “I will continue to look for opportunities for our city in the future.”

The announcement brought to a close a plan that promised to defy expectations and bring a successful wind energy facility to Arkansas for the first time.

Dragonfly representatives first approached city officials with their idea in December 2014. They said dozens of 1 50-foot turbine towers could deliver 80 megawatts of capacity, enough for several thousand homes.

The plan centered on the company’s unusual turbine design, which would cover the spinning blades with a cylindrical shell and resemble a jet engine.

Davis and others with the company said the shell would make the turbine efficient enough to draw energy out of even a light breeze and solve problems that have plagued other designs, though they added they hadn’t tested a physical prototype.

“Arkansas needs what we’re bringing,” Davis said in February 2015. “What we’re bringing changes the game.”

The attempt was the third in the past decade to build a wind farm in Northwest Arkansas, where wind speeds are much lower than in Texas, Oklahoma and other wind power-producing states.

Kansas-based TradeWind Energy tried in 2008 to build 150 turbines in Searcy County, according to the Harrison Daily Times. The same year the company also considered a wind farm in Benton County. Both projects fell through because of environmental concerns or lack of buyer interest.

A handful of other companies across the country have touted shrouded designs in recent years, but they’ve met broad skepticism from the wind power industry and engineers.

“Somebody independent should verify that they do what they claim to do,” Jim Manwell, director of the University of Massachusetts Wind Energy Center, said. “Otherwise I wouldn’t believe it.”

Neighbors of the proposed site on Elm Springs’ west edge largely felt the same way. They said the technology was untested and possibly harmful to health and property value. Hamby and others opposed an annexation, saying the county’s planners were more experienced and more able than the city’s to decide if the project was safe.

“We might not be so against it if we knew, if we really knew,” Frieda Rogers said last March. “We don’t have answers for anything.”

At a packed town hall last spring, Dragonfly representatives assured residents their technology was sound and said the project would go forward with or without annexation to the city, but opposition continued to grow.

After the council approved the annexation in the fall, opponents gathered 180 signatures in the city for a public vote.

Opponents also turned to the backgrounds of Davis and Cody Fell, who represented Dragonfly at several meetings.

Davis pleaded guilty to embezzling about $785,000 in federal court in Oklahoma seven years ago, and both men have admitted to hot check violations in Arkansas in the past.

Davis has said he paid for and grew past his mistakes, while Fell hasn’t publicly commented. Hamby said the past convictions were more evidence the plan wasn’t trustworthy. Davis sued Hamby and his wife for defamation in Washington County Circuit Court. Judge John Threet dismissed the suit Monday after Davis didn’t respond to Hamby’s motion to dismiss.

Alderman Kevin Thornton, who took a cau - tious, wait-and-see stance throughout the dispute, said he supported trying to make wind power work and wanted to grow the city.

Dragonfly could have done better if they shared more information and plans, he said.

“I have to appreciate my colleagues at the City Council and Planning Commission; they have been through a lot during this process, and I think they ought to be commended for acting in the professional way that they did,” Thornton added. “I’m glad it’s over.”

Dan Holtmeyer can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @NWADanH.

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