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Community endures despite Sunflower delay

Published 4/2/2012 in Progress


With plans to build a new coal-fired electric generation plant still tied up in the courts, local officials say the community continues to grow at its own pace, regardless of the delay on the Sunflower Electric Power Corp. project.

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Associated Press Sunflower Electric Cooperative's coal-fired power plant rises beyond a pile of coal as it churns out electricity in this February 2007 photo in Holcomb.

Associated Press Sunflower Electric Cooperative's coal-fired power plant rises beyond a pile of coal as it churns out electricity in this February 2007 photo in Holcomb.

Sunflower's plans to build an 895-megawatt coal-fired power plant received its blessing from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment at the end of 2010, when the state agency granted an air-quality permit to the Hays-based electric generation and transmission utility.

But since that time, the estimated $2.8 billion expansion project has remained in limbo, facing continued opposition from special-interest groups and federal judges, who have put the project on hold.

Some state lawmakers in favor of Sunflower's plans to build its Holcomb expansion adjacent to its existing Holcomb facility have called the holdup "death-by-litigation," as U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler, has put it.

For more than a decade, Sunflower officials have been considering how to add new coal-fired generating capacity, first seeking permission to build two 700-megawatt plants at the Holcomb site in 2006, a move that eventually was shelved by state officials.

Over those years, many housing developers have drafted big plans to build, if and when the project comes to fruition, only to find that their plans, too, remain in limbo in anticipation of Sunflower.

Planning and Community Development Director Kaleb Kentner said that sentiment has been shifting, especially in the last year or so.

"The comments about someone developing based on Sunflower coming in, those comments have dropped by 50 percent or more," Kentner said. "People are moving ahead based on meeting the needs of the community and based on their (own) timelines."

With or without the commencement of Sunflower's Holcomb expansion project, the need for housing — especially affordable housing — continues to be in huge demand.

Kentner said the rental vacancies continue to be few and far between in the community.

"From what we're hearing from landlords, it's still at a 99 percent occupancy rate. It's still extremely difficult to find a rental property in Finney County and Garden City," Kentner said. "Even if Sunflower was announced tomorrow that they would start this fall, no one could build houses and have them ready by then. It would be extremely difficult, even for the fastest builders. ... We have such a demand right now. As fast as houses are coming on the market and either getting bought or sold, or rented, it's really difficult to say what a big project could do."

State Rep. Reynaldo Mesa, R-Garden City, acknowledged that while the delay of the multi-billion Sunflower project has hurt the community somewhat, the community also has held its own.

"Anytime those things don't pan out, it hurts us in moving forward," said Mesa, who served for about a decade as a Garden City commissioner. "Have we been directly hurt? No, because Garden City and Finney County, for one, are pretty proactive, looking at enticing other industry or business to come. ... It's a double-edged sword because we also have to prepare ourselves. We don't have adequate housing here, so when (big projects) are withheld, they could be a blessing to some degree. But also there's got to be certainty so people will build housing. It's like a catch-22."

Mesa, who also serves as president of the Garden City Area Chamber of Commerce, said the most direct and devastating impact of Sunflower's delay has been the availability and cost of energy, both locally and in the region.

"There's no doubt that it's somewhat hurt us from growing, but more so in making sure electricity rates are reasonable and that electricity itself is ... available, not just for our growth, but for the region," he said. "In a small way, it has hurt us. My hope is that they're still working on it. ... Hopefully that will move forward. I'm grateful the investors and cooperatives and partners are still together on this deal."

The Associated Press reported in February that U.S. District Judge Emmett Sullivan had ruled that an environmental impact study must be completed before construction of the expansion project could begin.

The ruling requires the Rural Utilities Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to complete the environmental study before granting any approvals to Sunflower to build its new plant.

Officials have said construction of the expansion project will lead to $2 billion in economic activity and will create nearly 2,000 jobs at peak construction. Proponents of the project also draw attention to its long-term economic benefits, which include 70 full-time jobs that could generate $5 million in annual wages.

Critics of the project oppose the production of carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of coal, which they believe contributes to man-made climate change and global warming.

According to the EPA, scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change believe most of the Earth's warming since the 1950s has been due to the increase in greenhouse gas emissions from human activities.

A separate challenge of the Sunflower project is pending before the Kansas Supreme Court, as well, likely to be heard some time this year.

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