Some area residents say the Stephenson County Board’s decision Wednesday not to recognize a petition related to the proposed wind farms was unfair and that more effort should have been used to verify the petition signatures that were rejected.
“My reaction is that this is a deliberate manipulation of a law that’s intended to protect the voters,” said Carol Johnson of rural Dakota.
Even so, county State’s Attorney John Vogt stands behind his methodology for examining the signatures. He said he did what he could to ensure the process was fair, considering that state law and county zoning regulations offer no guidance on evaluating protest petitions.
“I tried to do what I thought made sense,” Vogt said.
The board Wednesday declined to recognize a petition that could have impacted the July approval of several controversial zoning changes related to the wind-farm application process.
On July 11, the board approved zoning changes altering the classification of wind-farm projects so they are now considered permitted uses of the county’s agricultural district. The projects were previously classified as special uses, requiring a permit of the same name.
Prior to the July 11 approval, objectors to the initiative filed a written protest containing a total of 1,706 signatures.
County zoning regulations, which are modeled after state law, indicate 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 board declined to recognize the protest, as officials claimed they could not accurately determine the total number of landowners in the county. The matter was then referred to Vogt’s office for review.
At Wednesday’s board meeting, Vogt gave a detailed report on how he calculated the number of landowners and evaluated the protest petition. The county, he determined, has approximately 27,841 landowners. In order to reach 5 percent, the petition would have to contain 1,392 valid signatures.
Signatures were ruled invalid for a number of reasons. A total of 125 were eliminated because the signatures were on sheets of paper that did not describe specifically what was being protested. Vogt said he based this on requirements for petitions related to candidates for political office.
“There should be something on the piece of paper saying what you are protesting,” Vogt said.
An additional 194 signatures were then disqualified because they were either illegible or because the person who signed the document was not on the list of landowners Vogt had. This means the petition only had 1,387 valid signatures, five fewer than what was required to be considered 5 percent of landowners, Vogt determined.
Names and numbers
Mike King of rural Dakota, Johnson’s husband, said each signature on the petition had an accompanying address and phone number. Considering how close the count was, Vogt’s office should have made an effort to verify the signatures that were reportedly illegible, King said. King and Johnson own property near the proposed Lancaster Wind Farm.
“If you’re only five signatures short, call somebody,” King said.
Vogt said his office tried to match the signatures and addresses with a list of county landowners. However, the prospect of calling the petition signers was “not discussed,” he said.
Rick Giles of rural Freeport, who also owns property near the proposed Lancaster Wind Farm, said objectors may request a copy of the signatures Vogt claims are illegible so they can evaluate them.
It is unclear what the appeals process will be in a situation like this, Giles said. Also, objectors say they are unsure whether they will challenge this decision in the courts, considering the significant cost that would be involved.
County Board Chairman John Blum praised Vogt’s work on this issue, and said it is time for the county to “move on and accept this decision as final.”
“In view of the available statutes and legal guidance, I believe the state’s attorney looked at this issue from many angles to give the benefit to the petitioning public,” Blum said.
Status of ongoing wind-farm lawsuits
There are two pending lawsuits seeking 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.
Both lawsuits will be up for a first appearance in court on Oct. 2 in Ogle County before Judge Robert Hanson, said Frank Cook, special assistant state’s attorney for the county.
By Travis Morse
14 September 2007
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