On the heels of new case law being handed down by the Illinois Supreme Court, Stephenson County officials will now be conducting zoning hearings for larger special-use permit requests – such as for the proposed wind farms – in a more formal fashion, so the hearings will more resemble a court proceeding, officials say.
“The Supreme Court has indicated that special-use zoning hearings are quasi-judicial, fact-based hearings,” said county Special Assistant State’s Attorney Frank Cook. “The procedures are going to be a little more formalized than they have been in the past. … I think it’s going to be a pretty beneficial change.”
The primary result of these changes will be that those testifying may be cross-examined and asked to produce evidence regarding their testimony, officials say. Also, in some instances, a hearing officer will be present at the hearings to oversee the process.
Cook and Terry Groves, director of planning and zoning for the county, brought up the new changes to the county’s zoning hearing process at a County Board hearing earlier this month. A recently concluded 2002 Supreme Court case – Klaeren vs. Lisle – established that the court would like Illinois counties to hold more formal zoning hearings for special-use permit requests, especially those requests that involve large projects and have a significant number of people testifying for or against the request, officials say.
As a result, numerous counties across Illinois – including Stephenson – are taking steps to formalize their special-use hearing process, Groves said. These changes should allow the county to protect itself from lawsuits, and also prevent delays in the hearing process, Groves said.
“It turns the hearing process into (something) a little more complex,” Groves said.
Zoning officials hope the result of these new guidelines will be more fact-based objections at hearings, and fewer objections based on emotion or personal issues. At this time, officials only plan to utilize the new guidelines for large-scale permit requests. However, the use may be expanded in the future.
“It’s not going to be as formal as a courtroom, but there’s going to be some effort to have the credibility of the evidence determined, challenged, and assessed,” Cook said.
The first opportunity the county will have to test this new system will likely be next month when public hearings are held for the two firms proposing power-generating wind farms for the county.
Navitas Energy of Minneapolis, and Freeport-based EcoEnergy LLC, a division of The Morse Group, each applied for a special-use zoning permit with the county earlier this month to establish wind farms. If the two proposals win county approval, as many as 100 wind turbines capable of generating 170 megawatts of clean electricity may soon be added to the local rural landscape.
A public hearing for the Navitas wind farm will be held at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 7 at Highland Community College in Freeport. A similar hearing for the EcoEnergy farm will be held at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 13 at the Stephenson County Farm Bureau.
By Travis Morse, The Journal-Standard
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