Proposed power plant divides small Shelby County town

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Residents in Morristown are rallying against a proposed $500 million power plant they fear will harm the quiet agricultural community.

But while neighbors worry the development is a done deal, officials with energy company Tenaska are trying to answer their questions and say there's plenty of work that needs to be done to bring the project to fruition.

Tenaska is considering building a new natural gas-fueled power plant on 98 acres in an industrial park on the far east side of town.

While it's uncertain whether plans will actually become reality, tension in the Shelby County community about 20 miles southeast of Indianapolis has been escalating as dozens of its 1,200 residents worry it will affect their way of life and property values.

Tenaska officials announced in December they were eyeing a site in the community's industrial park for a new plant. The project would boost economic development: 600 to 700 construction workers would be needed to build the facility. When it's complete, it would employ 25 people.

But tension has been building in recent weeks, with nearly 100 "Stop Tenaska" signs dotting the community, the Daily Reporter of Greenfield reported. Town council meetings have become tense, and disputes have ensued over social media and whether the public can record open meetings of the town council.

The public angst might come to a head next Wednesday, when a company representative from Tenaska will give the council an update on plans.

For Sara Goedde, one of the neighbors leading the charge against the plant, the meeting could offer some insight into how the facility will affect the community. The issue has become divisive, she said, and she hopes the public becomes educated on how it could impact the community.

"All we want to do is put information out," Goedde said. "It's a tiny town, it's only 1,200 people, and there's still people that don't know anything about it. Well, you should know; whether you're for it or against it."

Goedde and her husband, Kirby, have lived in Morristown 13 years with their three daughters. The proposed facility would be directly behind their rural home, and Goedde worries about noise, light, the impact on water and more.

"I've been looking at aerial views of other plants. Typically, they don't put it close to town," Goedde said. "Not a house within a half-mile, or if there was a house, there's a dense woods between the power plant and the residents."

There are more than 180 followers on the "Stop Tenaska Power Plant" Facebook page, and residents have packed the past few town council meetings, hoping for any morsel of information on the proposed development.

Helen Manroe, director of development for Tenaska, said there are 16 other natural gas sites in the country, and it's common for neighbors to have plenty of questions and concerns. The problem is, until the economic climate is right to build the new plant, it's hard to answer many questions about what type of emissions there will be, the type of equipment and the water requirements.

"It's very common for people to have concerns," Manroe said. "That happens in every community that we go to. And part of the challenge here is we need to do at least some preliminary work, and when you're doing this preliminary work there's lots of stuff you don't know yet and people get frustrated when you can't provide answers. We understand that. I hate that I don't have all the answers right now today, I wish that I did. But that's not the way these projects work."

Manroe said Tenaska will work to get contracts for companies to sell the energy to, but until the market is right, company officials won't know when the new plant will be built.

Still, she's trying to answer as many questions as she can, and she'll address the town council at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

Manroe said it's not unusual for the power plants to be built within a half mile of residential neighborhoods. The benefit of opening in an industrial park in Morristown, she said, is town officials have already marked the area for industrial growth.

"I know that some of the people who have concerns are concerned about the amount of buffer that exists at this plant as opposed to other plants," she said. "But the industrial park as a whole serves as a buffer because the purpose of an industrial park is to ensure residential homes aren't built nearby. In reality, we have a 400-acre buffer in Morristown because that's how big the industrial park is."

Manroe points to the benefits of the half-billion-dollar facility moving into the community, not only for the tax base for Morristown and Shelby County, but for the construction jobs that will draw workers from all over central Indiana.

And while original plans called for 8 million gallons of water a day, Manroe said now the company is considering a dry-cooling system where only a few hundred thousand gallons of water are used daily.

But for Goedde, whose property includes a lake, the switch to a dry-cooling system is questionable.

"We don't know what we're getting into. We don't even know what that is," she said.

The development has not only raised red flags when it comes to Tenaska, Goedde said, but it has also increased tension between residents and town officials.

Goedde filed a formal complaint with the Indiana public access counselor last month, after the town council voted to ban audience members from recording meetings.

The council has since rescinded the rule, realizing it is against the state's Open Door Law. Still, Goedde said she was shocked members would even consider it and was upset they made the motion in a special meeting in which it was not on the agenda. Goedde is also frustrated her comments on the town's Facebook page have been removed.

The public access counselor will make a decision on Goedde's complaint later this month after hearing from the town attorney and clerk-treasurer.

Ralph Henderson, town council president, has a simple hope for Wednesday's meeting: "Calm."

Henderson said the council passed the rule banning recordings last month after the public got out of hand at a meeting. While he said town attorney Mark McNeely suggested the rule, the council rescinded it at the following meeting when members realized it was violating state law.

Henderson said he's not going to let next week's meeting get out of hand, and he hopes Manroe's presentation will answer a lot of questions.

Bottom line, Henderson said, is town officials need to learn more details about the plant before even thinking about granting tax breaks to Tenaska.

"I'm not saying I'm for or against it. Everyone has said we've already signed papers," Henderson said. "I haven't heard one of them say they're for or against; I don't think they can be. You've got to look at what's best for the town, like anything."

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