URBANA – Roy Douglas knows it will not be too long before his family loses its five-generation farm to encroaching development – he has already sold part of it to the University of Illinois, and the school owns hundreds of acres across the street.
But right now, he is more worried about losing the horizon and his peace of mind to the university’s proposal to build up to three 400-foot wind turbines on the land across the street from his Philo Road ranch house south of Urbana. One of the turbines could be less than 1,000 feet from his front door.
“They might think this is out in the middle of nowhere,” Douglas said, “but this is going to affect me and my kids and my grandkids.”
The university has been planning for years to build the wind farm on the plat northwest of the intersection on Philo and Old Church roads, outside the Urbana city limits but within the 1 1/2-mile radius where the city is allowed to enforce its zoning ordinance.
The site was chosen because of its distance from Willard Airport, and the specific points where the turbines are proposed are atop three high points on the property, where the spinning blades can catch more air.
The project has flickered on and off with the UI’s budget constraints since around 2003, but in October, university officials released a proposal detailed enough for contractors to enter bids on the construction.
“It’s both a demonstration for electric sustainability and being green,” said Melvyn Skvarla, one of the project’s planners with Facilities and Services at the UI. “And it’s also a way of cutting down our carbon footprint, which seems to be a very important factor for many environmentalists to use less fossil-burning fuels.”
The project was conceived by student environmentalists, and their group secured grant money to help fund its budget, set at $4.5 million.
The university will begin accepting bids today, and Skvarla said there were at least 11 potential bidders at a prior meeting. The UI Board of Trustees must approve a bid, and officials are hoping to have the first turbine up and running by the end of May 2011.
Whether the university will build one, two or three turbines is still unclear and will depend on the prices that the bidders quote, Skvarla said.
Douglas is uneasy – his home is among only a few that would lie within the turbines’ shadows, and he said the UI has not given due diligence to study effects on nearby properties.
“They aren’t good neighbors,” he said. “They’re all about themselves.”
Skvarla said the turbines would have little effect on the nearby homes, but university officials are concerned about what would be going on directly below the spinning blades.
“Our faculty and our researchers are more concerned about how the turbines would affect the research going on, on the property beneath the wind turbines,” Skvarla said.
That includes a plot where researchers grow special grasses they believe can be turned into biofuels – the study is part of a 10-year, $50 million partnership with BP.
The turbines would be set to shut off at a certain wind speed so as to not affect those fields, Skvarla said.
But farther away from the site is the Deerfield Trails subdivision, about a mile north of where the wind turbines would go. Doug Wolfersberger, a resident there, went to the Urbana City Council this month on behalf of the neighborhood’s homeowners association to ask for the city’s help.
Residents in Deerfield Trails do not want to see the 40-story towers on their horizon and worry that the sight would hurt their property values, Wolfersberger said.
But city officials are not completely sure about what authority they have. Just before the university released a detailed package for bids, the city council approved a zoning ordinance to regulate wind turbines just beyond the city limits.
As it is written, the UI proposal does not comply with all the regulations in that zoning ordinance, including the minimization of shadows that would be cast on homes and how close the towers may be to residential property lines, city planning manager Robert Myers said.
“The city has adopted this community standard, and we’d like the university to provide that standard to the companies that are responding to the requests for proposals,” Myers said.
The “setback requirements” are outlined to reduce the turbines’ effects, like noise and “shadow flicker,” on neighboring properties.
“It also helps deal with the issue of just the visual intrusion of the tower,” Myers said.
The UI plan could be modified a bit to comply with the city’s zoning ordinance, but whether or not the university must comply in the first place may come down to power of attorney.
As a state agency, the university is not always required to comply with cities’ zoning ordinances, but city attorneys believe there may be a state law that would force compliance in this case. The scenario has not been tested in the courts.
Alderwoman Diane Mar- line, D-7, prepared a statement at the previous council meeting to call out university officials on their noncompliance, and Heather Stevenson, R-6, said she was “taken aback by the whole situation.”
But whether there’s an issue depends on whom you ask.
“They’re trying to make an issue where there’s no issue in our opinion,” Skvarla said.
Meanwhile, Douglas and his family farm are caught in the middle.
“It’s not on their front yard,” he said.
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