HARTSBURG – Climbing over an 11th-hour bump in the road, Rail Splitter Wind Farm presented its case Thursday to the Logan County Zoning Board of Appeals, which will make a recommendation on the company’s request to place 29 wind turbines along the Union Ridge in northern Logan County.
The appeals board is meeting in response to a recommendation from the Logan County Regional Planning Commission, which earlier this week gave its approval to the wind farm proposal.
The surprise bump in the road came Thursday from Rockford attorney Rich Porter, who handed board members and wind farm representatives a motion to dismiss the hearing and deny Rail Splitter’s zoning request. Lawyers huddled with Logan County zoning officer Will D’Andrea for several moments before the hearing was called to order.
Porter based his motion on a claim that not all residents in and around the proposed area for the wind farm construction had been given the required legal notification of the hearing.
Union Ridge Wind, an organized group of wind farm opponents who have hired Porter, had already scored success with that tactic several weeks ago. As a result, D’Andrea was forced to remove the wind farm proposal from the April agenda of the regional planning commission after some residents complained they weren’t notified of that meeting.
At the outset of Thursday’s hearing at Hartsburg-Emden High School, Porter warned the zoning board it should not allow the procedure to continue.
“I have butted myself into the process early, because they should be stopped now,” he said, referring to the wind farm developers.
“I’m not going to go away,” Porter warned board members. “I’m going to appeal and I’m going to win.”
Porter also raised a formal objection to the nature of the wind farm’s petition – to obtain a conditional use zoning permit granting it permission to erect the wind turbines on land zoned for agricultural use. He said Rail Splitter’s application over-reaches the very nature of the special use permit since it takes in several hundred acres of land and will “completely change your landscape.”
Ben Lasko, a Chicago attorney hired by Houston-based Horizon Wind Energy, parent company behind the Rail Splitter venture, rebutted Porter’s arguments. He said everyone living in the construction area, including Porter’s own clients, had received proper notification of Thursday’s hearing.
Lasko also argued that Porter’s motion was “untimely,” having been delivered just prior to the start of the hearing.
“This all should have been filed days ago,” he said, adding that the date on Porter’s motion was May 7, a day before the hearing.
D’Andrea, advising the zoning board members to proceed with the hearing, disagreed that Rail Splitter’s application went beyond the intended scope of a special use permit.
“This is not a zoning change,” he said. “The property will remain basically agricultural.”
Bill Whitlock, Horizon Wind’s director of development and the leadoff witness at the hearing, said about 2 percent of farmland in the construction zone would be removed from crop production. Most agreements with farmland owners provide them with $5,500 lease income a year over a 30-year period, he said. Minimum 2 percent annual increases in the lease payments are guaranteed, he said.
Whitlock cited studies that claim wind turbines do not have a significant impact on property values. He said the many “significant improvements” to rural roads and drainage infrastructure that the wind farm undertakes at its expense at the end of construction can actually improve land values.
He noted that Logan County’s Wind Energy Conversion Ordinance requires turbines to be placed a minimum of 750 feet away from any dwelling. Horizon’s plan for the Rail Splitter Wind Farm has doubled that standard, he said, explaining that all the turbines going up in Logan County would be at least 1,500 feet away from homes.
Greg Zak, a private consultant from Springfield, testified about noise pollution studies he has made on the Rail Splitter plans. Under a combative cross-examination by Porter, Zak never wavered from his basic position that the wind farm would be in compliance with Illinois environmental regulations on noise pollution.
Zak formerly worked for several years as a noise pollution specialist with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and the Illinois Pollution Control Board.
Zak said his projections on decibel levels were made using noise data from GE, the turbine manufacturer, the planned locations of the turbines and the distance between the turbines and residential structures.
Zak said past practices have shown that his calculations, made using a special computer program, routinely are higher than actual measurements that are taken once a project is completed.
Replying to one of many technical questions from Porter, Zak said he purposely has not tweaked his computer program so it provides a more accurate prediction of noise levels. He said the higher numbers provide a cushion of sorts in providing noise projections.
With the meeting running well past 10 p.m., and appeals board chairman Dean Toohey growing impatient with the late hour, the board adjourned the hearing to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Hartem High gymnasium.
Toohey said Porter will be allowed to call expert witnesses at next week’s hearing. He also encouraged area residents to come prepared to address their own questions to Rail Splitter representatives and Porter’s experts.
At the conclusion of the hearing process, the five-member appeals board will vote on a recommendation to approve or deny the special use request. The recommendation will then be forwarded to the Logan County Board for final action. The county board is not legally bound to follow recommendations it receives from either the planning commission or zoning appeals board.
But, without a conditional use permit in hand, Rail Splitter cannot begin construction.
The county board is tentative scheduled to take up the matter later this month.
By Dan Tackett
9 May 2008
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