EUREKA — Later this week, efforts to refine Woodford County’s regulation of wind-energy systems are likely to come to a head.
Considering the tone the debate has taken at times over the months and years, it can be hard to believe participants haven’t come to blows.
“I get very passionate, but once I walk out of here, I forget about it. But because I’m not going to vote the way you want me to vote and you’re going to call me up and start cussing and screaming at me? I’ll never forget that,” Doug Huser said about a fellow Woodford County Board member, whose identity he would not confirm.
Huser, a polarizing figure, is the chairman of the County Board’s conservation, planning and zoning committee. It has been revising the section of the county zoning ordinance that deals with wind farms.
The full board is expected to vote on those changes during its February meeting, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday. It is the final step in a process that last month included near-unanimous approval by the Woodford County Zoning Board of Appeals.
Proponents of the changes say they help ensure property rights of landowners adjacent to wind farms while maintaining a clear path for those installations to develop.
“It won’t kill wind farms,” zoning committee member Duane Kingdon said. “This is a very small percentage of people we’re asking to protect.”
Opponents say the changes will make it more difficult
for wind-energy corporations to establish themselves in the county and chase away those businesses – and the tax dollars they can provide.
“It’s a death sentence for wind energy in Woodford County,” County Board member Larry Whitaker said.
Wind ‘very attractive’
The only wind-energy project currently under development in the county won’t be subject to the new regulations.
Gamesa Technology Corp. is expected this spring to begin constructing 100 wind turbines on land east-southeast of Minonk. Construction is expected to be completed this fall, according to project manager Duane Enger.
“We can say the wind resource is very attractive in Woodford County,” Enger said.
There are three other proposed wind-energy developments in the county, but they’re in various states of dormancy. Economic reasons have been cited, but so has regulatory uncertainty. One wind-energy firm that suspended a project mailed a letter last year to affected property owners that cited the election of “multiple new County Board members who do not support wind development.”
The zoning committee’s revisions are most noticeable in three areas.
Turbine towers would need to be located at least four times their height from residences that aren’t part of the wind farm. The current county standard for so-called setbacks is 750 feet. A typical tower can be at least 400 feet tall.
Shadow flicker – in which rotating turbine blades cast shadows upon stationary objects – would be limited to 30 hours per calendar year. The current ordinance has no shadow-flicker regulation.
Individual property owners would be free to negotiate waivers, Kingdon said.
Shutting down wind farms also would be handled differently. Developers would have to put no less than 50 percent of the decommissioning fund as cash in an escrow account in a Woodford County bank. The balance would be in the form of a surety bond secured from an Illinois institution. Currently, no percentages or financial institutions are codified.
“The change on shadow flicker was a wise decision,” said Andrew Downey, a Streator resident, turbine host and wind-energy consultant. “But the restrictions on setbacks and the decommissioning bond would have a restricting effect on the economics of wind farms in Woodford County.”
The Minonk wind farm extends into Livingston County. Its regulations on turbine setbacks range from 1.1 times the tower height to 1,200 feet or three times the tower height, depending on property lines and residence foundations, according to Zoning Administrator Chuck Schopp.
The lack of consistency among counties concerns Woodford County Board member John Krug.
“I’m hearing from my constituents that they want to be treated equally in issues with wind farm zoning as the counties around them are,” said Krug, who represents areas where Woodford County wind farms would be based.
‘We looked at every angle’
The County Board zoning committee has held numerous meetings to discuss the ordinance revisions. Most of its members also defended those revisions in front of the Zoning Board of Appeals.
“We spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours researching this,” said Kingdon, who also said he consulted wind-energy authorities in the United States and elsewhere. “We know we did this in a scientific way, with good evidence. . . . It is fair and down the middle of the road. We looked at every angle.”
The level of scrutiny the proposed ordinance revisions and the entire process has received doesn’t seem to faze Enger.
“In a lot of respects, I like Woodford County, because they want to know specific information,” he said. “I think it’s justifiable for a county to ask hard questions.
“Woodford County has asked us difficult questions over and over. It’s a good dialogue. They’re not just accepting what the wind guys are saying.”
Gamesa’s lack of activity regarding the Roanoke wind farm it had been developing is unrelated to the proposed ordinance changes, Enger said.
The potential loss of revenue from that and other projects – Gamesa recently paid Woodford County almost $900,000 in connection with the Minonk development – concerns Whitaker.
“We have to find relief for residential property owners,” he said. “Their tax burden keeps going up and up and up. The only way we can do that is by looking for new, innovative approaches. This is just an attempt to slam the door on that.”
One side vs. another
Door-slamming appears to have been a hallmark of the wind farm debate almost from its beginning.
Opponents and supporters have spent years jousting verbally in front of and within various Woodford County boards.
“It got somewhat antagonistic,” county Zoning Administrator Kim Holmes said. “And there was some name-calling and there was some jeering and inappropriate laughter and shouting. There was a lot of animosity that came out.”
Although wind-energy opponents tended to outnumber supporters at those meetings, Holmes said, other evidence suggested there were more proponents than perceived.
“From the vast majority of people I talk to outside the office or who call in . . . those numbers alone say there is a significant amount of people out there that do want wind farms,” Holmes said. “I think the County Board has done its level best to be objective and fair.”
What the board’s final decision on the revised ordinance will be is uncertain. “Flip a coin,” Huser said.
Huser’s terminology in that description appears to dovetail with his beliefs regarding this issue.
“Everybody is blinded by the dollar signs on this,” he said. “Why can some people complain that they want things changed – they don’t want dogs, they don’t want buildings, and the ZBA listens and the board listens and their voice is heard. But hundreds of people complain about these windmills, and it’s ‘Shut up.’
“Want to know why? It’s the almighty dollar. That’s what it is.”