Stephenson County officials say proposed changes to the county’s zoning code will streamline the application process for wind farm companies and make it more cost-effective to bring such projects to this area.
Opponents of the initiative, however, say these changes could be a way for the county to sidestep lawsuits seeking to stop two wind-farm companies from building in this county.
They also worry that the changes will limit the public’s ability to formally object to future wind-farm projects, since under the new proposed system such projects would no longer go before the county Zoning Board of Appeals for evaluation.
“Our fear is that the county is trying to hijack this process,” said Mike King of rural Dakota, a property owner who lives near the proposed Lancaster Wind Farm.
The proposed changes would, among other things, alter the classification of wind farm projects so that they would now be considered permitted uses for the county’s agricultural district. Currently, these projects are classified as special uses, requiring a permit of the same name.
If wind farms become permitted uses, they would have to meet the approval of the county zoning department. The projects would no longer go before the zoning board, as is currently the case. Zoning board hearings provide a forum for supporters and objectors to projects to express their views on the record.
Terry Groves, director of planning and zoning for the county, said his department has planned for these zoning changes for several years. The goal is to make the application process more efficient, officials say.
Under the new system, the zoning department – headed by Groves – would evaluate each wind-farm project using a set of guidelines established by the zoning code.
Groves pointed out that the new proposed zoning ordinance has farther setback requirements for wind farms than the current ordinance.
With the new ordinance, wind turbines have to be about 1,000 feet from the property of non-participating landowners, as opposed to only 500 feet. The specific distance requirement in the new ordinance is four times the turbine height, Groves said.
Groves also said the new ordinance will include a requirement that wind-farm companies have to provide proof they held two public meetings before their projects can be approved. There are also stipulations about notifying property owners, he said.
Even so, opponents say the new ordinance could impact two pending wind-farm lawsuits. The lawsuits seek to invalidate the special-use permits that would allow two companies to build wind farms in the county. The two companies are Navitas Energy of Minneapolis, and Freeport-based EcoEnergy LLC, a division of The Morse Group.
Opponents worry that Navitas and EcoEnergy could withdraw their special-use applications and reapply under the new ordinance. That way, the companies could avoid the lawsuits altogether, they say. It is unclear how the lawsuits would be affected by such an action.
“It seems like they think we have a chance with this lawsuit (and they’re) using this to subvert it,” said Rick Giles, a property owner who lives near the Lancaster farm site.
Representatives from the wind-farm companies said they had no current plans to apply under the new ordinance.
The new ordinance also has a disclaimer stating that property owners in the agricultural district should be “prepared to accept” certain “inconveniences, discomfort, and the possibility of injury from normal agricultural and renewable energy operations.”
The ordinance also states that the Farm Nuisance Suit Act and case law may bar objectors from obtaining a legal judgment against such operations.
Opponents say these aspects of the ordinance may prevent objectors from pursuing any legal action against future wind-farm projects.
Frank Cook, special assistant state’s attorney for the county, said the new ordinance provides a much better system for evaluating wind farm applications.
The County Board, he said, has already indicated its support for encouraging wind-farm projects in this area. It would not make sense to have a lengthy debate before the zoning board on the pros and cons of wind farms for each future project, Cook said.
“In a lot of ways, the issues have been aired out and the decision was made that windmills should be allowed in Stephenson County,” Cook said.
The proposed zoning changes will likely go before the County Board for a vote at a meeting set for 6:30 p.m. next Wednesday.
By Travis Morse
5 July 2007
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