FREEPORT – With the current record system in place, Stephenson County officials say it is not possible to calculate with certainty the total number of landowners in the county.
Determining this number has become an issue with the County Board’s approval July 11 of several controversial zoning changes that will affect the wind-farm application process.
Prior to the board’s approval of the changes, it was revealed that objectors to the initiative had filed a written protest 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 a 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.
On July 11, the county declined to recognize the protest and the zoning changes were approved in a narrow 12-9 vote.
County officials 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.
Not a ‘nice little algorithm’
Frank Cook, the county’s special assistant state’s attorney, said it likely would not be possible to come up with a finite number of landowners without physically looking through all the land deeds.
Land trusts that are set up through banks make it especially difficult to determine ownership, Cook said. Some trusts include multiple properties and it’s not always possible to determine who the owners are, he said.
“It’s not a process that lends itself to a nice little algorithm,” Cook said.
County State’s Attorney John Vogt said his office is currently trying to determine the number of landowners, a process that will involve reviewing a substantial number of records.
Vogt said he’s not sure of the time frame on this project, but that he feels his office will “come up with a number.”
Ron Kane, the chief county assessment officer, said the county has 27,208 parcels of land in its tax system. Determining ownership of each of these parcels, however, is not an easy task.
In some cases, older properties only list the husband as an owner and not the wife, which can make it difficult to determine the number of owners, Kane said. Also, deaths are not tracked in the county’s system so an owner who is deceased may still be in the system, he said.
There can also be problems determining ownership when a resident has deeded his property to his children, Kane said.
At this time, it is not possible to calculate an exact number of property owners, Kane said.
“In the end, all anyone will be able to do is give a range,” Kane said.
Officials say changing the local ordinance regarding the signatures is likely not a viable option since it is modeled after a state statute. Ultimately, the state statute would have to be changed in order to make a difference locally, officials said.
Some opponents of the wind farm changes remain skeptical about the county’s motives. Mike King of rural Dakota, who owns property near the proposed Lancaster Wind Farm, said the county’s reasons for not recognizing the protest petition were part of a “scheme” to force a simple majority vote.
The county’s ultimate goal seems to be to make it as easy as possible for wind farms to come into the area, King said.
“With the new ordinance, it’s a cakewalk,” King said.
By Travis Morse
18 July 2007
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