FREEPORT – About a dozen protesters picketed the county administration building Wednesday to draw attention to their belief that their rights have been violated by Stephenson County Board members.
Between 10:30 a.m. and noon on streets that surround the county building, protesters handed out yellow “democracy” leaflets and silently carried signs printed with phrases stating “You Count,” and “Be Heard” and “Speak Up.”
Those protesting were peaceful but encouraged people who stopped to talk to contact their county board representative.
The dozen were protesting a July 11 board vote that changed the county zoning definition for primary agriculture land to include wind farms as a permitted use. The prior definition for property zoned A-1, required a special use permit for wind farms.
Residents were not allowed to address the board on July 11 until after members voted 12 to 9 to approve the zoning change, angering many who packed the board meeting room. A “petition protest” filed July 10 with the county clerk and signed by 1,800 reported county landowners – which under state law would have required a supermajority vote by board members on the zoning issue – was set aside at the meeting.
John Blum, County Board Chairman, said the board could not accurately verify whether 1,800 landowners represented enough to meet the criteria of the state law and require the supermajority, or three-fourths approval vote.
Ridott resident Richard Tidwell said validation of the signatures could lead to a revote on the zoning issue.
“They won on a basis of a simple majority. On the basis of a supermajority which would be 16 or more votes, they’d have lost,” Tidwell said.
Even more, he said, the picketing was about a resident’s basic constitutional right.
“The whole idea of a person’s voice being taken from them is a clear violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution,” Tidwell said.
As a result of the revision wind-farm projects do not have to go before the county’s Zoning Board of Appeals. Instead, the county zoning department would review projects using guidelines in the county code.
Jerry Maize, a 65-year-old dairy farmer in the Lancaster Township, said he has been a county resident all his life. Wednesday, the soft-spoken farmer carried a picket on his shoulder.
“It’s not that we’re against wind turbines in general,” Maize said, “but they’re not agriculture and the ordinance should not re-label this as agriculture,” he said.
He also wants to hold government officials accountable.
“We have a right to say how we’re governed. That’s what our government’s all about. And the only way we’re going to get that is if we speak up and hold our government officials accountable for what they do.”
Two companies, Navitas Energy of Minneapolis and Freeport-based EcoEnergy LLC, have been issued special use permits by the county board for wind farm developments they are proposing in Stephenson County. Those projects are on hold, however, after two groups of landowners filed legal actions to stop the project and challenge the county’s decision to issue the special use permits.
Opponents of the wind farm developments contend that redefining the county zoning ordinance to allow wind farms as permitted uses will result in both companies withdrawing the existing special use permits and resubmitting new plans under the new regulations.
Lena resident Bob Nawa said Wednesday that the county’s actions proves to him the county board doesn’t want to hear from its people anymore.
“We collected what we thought were enough signatures to cause them to block this ordinance. It isn’t so much as to whether we were able to speak or not; the zoning board of appeals listened. The county board, the very fact that they’re passing this, is that they don’t want to hear from the people,” Nawa said.
County Board Chairman John Blum said a multitude of legal reasons prevented people from being heard on July 11 and also said the new laws would still allow public hearings. He said the two developers are trying to be friendly to landowners – setbacks have been altered to keep turbines farther away from homes, for example, he said. A count is ongoing as to how many of those 1,800 who signed the protest petition are landowners under the legal definition and how many landowners, including trusts and condominiums, exist in the county, he said.
But condominium owners are not landowners, he said, and land held in trust must be represented by the land trust on petitions. So it’s more complicated than people imagined, Blum said.
Even so, no wind farm permits would be granted under the new law until all that is sorted out, a month-long task or more ongoing by state’s attorney John Vogt, Blum said.
“It should be a simple thing but it’s going to take some time because there are so many parcels and signatures involved,” Blum said.
By Diana Roemer
25 July 2007
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