With the approval Wednesday of several controversial zoning changes, Stephenson County now has a new process for evaluating wind-farm projects.
Even so, county officials are uncertain whether approval of the zoning changes will be challenged in court and how such legal action might affect future projects.
“I have no idea what’s going to happen there,” said Terry Groves, director of planning and zoning for the county.
After a heated and emotional meeting Wednesday night, the County Board voted 12-9 in favor of the zoning changes.
Matters were complicated Wednesday when it was revealed that objectors to the changes had filed a written protest on Tuesday containing about 1,800 signatures.
County zoning regulations state that a protest containing signatures from 5 percent of county landowners will alter how a vote is taken on zoning changes. If the protest is ruled valid, the changes would have to be approved by a three-fourths majority vote of the County Board, as opposed to a simple majority.
Even so, the county on Wednesday declined to recognize the protest. Board members maintained that the county’s ordinance did not clearly define how many signatures were needed to equal 5 percent. They also said they could not determine the total number of landowners in the county.
Rick Giles of rural Dakota said he has no doubt that opponents had enough signatures to warrant a three-fourths majority vote. He said some group will likely challenge the County Board’s action in the courts, but that he’s not sure who will “step up to the plate” to do it.
“I think there is serious doubt on the way it was handled,” said Giles, a property owner who lives near the proposed Lancaster Wind Farm.
Mike King of rural Dakota, who also owns property near the Lancaster farm site, said he is uncertain how opponents will respond to the board’s decision. Legal action is a possibility, but that option is expensive, King said.
King said citizens should not have to bear the financial burden of protecting themselves against the government. He said the board’s decision to disregard the protest petition and approve the zoning changes was unacceptable.
“This was a travesty, a mockery of democratic processes that have existed in this country for centuries,” King said.
The zoning changes alter the classification of wind-farm projects so they are now considered permitted uses for the county’s agricultural district. The projects were previously classified as special uses, requiring a permit of the same name.
Under the new system, future wind-farm projects will no longer go before the county Zoning Board of Appeals. The county zoning department will now evaluate each project using a set of guidelines established by the zoning code.
By removing the zoning board from the process, opponents worry that public comment on future projects will be stifled. There are provisions in the new zoning ordinance requiring a wind-farm company to hold two public meetings before it can receive a permit, but some say this is not sufficient.
Board member Mike Boomgarden said the main reason he voted against the measure was because it eliminates the public hearing process.
“I had a hard time giving that up,” Boomgarden said of the zoning hearings.
Opponents are also worried that the changes could allow the county to sidestep lawsuits seeking to stop two wind-farm companies from building in this county.
The fear is that the companies, Navitas Energy of Minneapolis and Freeport-based EcoEnergy LLC, could withdraw their special-use applications and reapply under the new ordinance.
Officials have not provided clear answers about how the lawsuits would be affected by such actions. Wind-farm company representatives said they have no current plans to apply under the new ordinance.
Supporters say the changes provide a more streamlined, cost-effective method for evaluating wind-farm applications.
Board member Jeff Mikkelsen, who voted for the changes, said all the possible objections to wind farms were already raised at the zoning hearings in November 2006. It makes no sense, he said, to have these debates for every future wind-farm project.
Also at Wednesday’s meeting, the board ratified union contracts for correctional officers and civilian employees of the Stephenson County Sheriff’s Office. The contracts are retroactive to Dec. 1, 2003, and will expire this December, officials said.
In addition Wednesday, the board discussed an initiative to refinance the county’s jail bond. The matter was laid over until August. Officials expect the initiative to be voted on at the next board meeting Aug. 15.
BREAKDOWN OF VOTING ON ZONING CHANGES
Stephenson County Board members who voted for the wind-farm zoning changes included Bennie Brown, Samuel Newton, Jeff Mikkelsen, Sheila Hooper, Debra DeVine, Todd McKenna, John Blum, Donald Parker, Vicki Hooper, Linda Dotson, Jim Kuhlmeier, and Forrest Senn.
Members who voted against the changes included Charles Hilton, William Hadley, Jim Graham, Alvin Wire, Sandra Kubatzke, Andrew Kuhlemeier, Mike Boomgarden, Brenda Boynton, and Sol Detente.
By Travis Morse
12 July 2007
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