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UI students rally in support of wind turbine

URBANA – University of Illinois students rallied in support of a proposed 400-foot wind turbine on Friday while school officials continue looking for $700,000 to fund the balance of the estimated $5.2 million project.

The project has been distressful for some residents of unincorporated Urbana, where homeowners worry that shadows and noise from the wind turbine will disrupt their peace and hurt their property values.

The University of Illinois Board of Trustees could take up the issue in March, though an agenda still has not been finalized, and UI President Michael Hogan this week reaffirmed the school’s commitment to the project after stakeholders began questioning whether the proposal would even move forward.

Originally budgeted at $4.5 million – to be funded by a $2 million state grant, $1.5 million out of the Urbana campus’ budget, and $500,000 each from the UI president’s office and student fees – university officials have raised the estimate to $5.2 million, following negotiations with a builder.

In the very beginning stages of the project, which was conceived in 2003 and has been on-and-off the university’s priority list since then, organizers hoped to build three turbines with the $4.5 million. After negotiations, they now plan to build one turbine for $5.2 million.

University officials have said that it is not clear where they will find the extra $700,000, but they have asked a student committee that manages the student fee to help with the balance.

Stakeholders have been waiting to see whether the proposal would make it onto the March board of trustees agenda for a vote and what the final details of the project will be. Much of the contention between Urbana residents and UI officials has been over the location of the turbine near the intersection of Philo and Old Church roads.

Last year, the Urbana City Council approved zoning regulations that call for a wind turbine of that size to be at least 1,200 feet away from the nearest residential property line. In the university’s first proposal, the turbine would have been just 1,028 feet from the home of Duane Schwartz.

Farther away are the Yankee Ridge and Deerfield Trails subdivisions, where residents are just as concerned about the turbine’s effects on their homes. In public meetings with UI officials, they have said the school has not done due diligence in researching the effects of shadows and noise that would be generated by the turbine.

After meeting with residents, university officials offered an alternative that would place the turbine 600 feet farther to the west and therefore in compliance with the city’s zoning regulation. At the time, officials made no promises to residents that the alternative location would end up in the final plan.

Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing said it is still not clear which location will end up in the proposal to the board of trustees. She said that city officials have been working with the university to agree on a location.

Nobody at the University of Illinois could be reached on Friday to comment about the turbine’s proposed location.

But whether the university is even required to comply with the city’s zoning ordinance is another point of disagreement between the UI and the city. University lawyers say the state agency is not bound by municipal zoning regulations, but city officials say they feel the UI must comply.

The scenario has never been tested in the courts, but Prussing said Urbana will continue working toward a resolution.

“It’s a far-reaching project, and it’s an awful lot of money,” Prussing said on Tuesday.

Despite the disharmony, UI students on Friday marched and chanted: “Hey, hey, ho, ho, the wind turbine’s got to blow,” and “The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.” They gathered at the Swanlund Administration Building on campus in support of the wind turbine project.

“If students 50 years ago had known what we know today, would they have accepted coal just as readily?” said Eric Green, who has been involved with Students for Environmental Concerns since the group conceived of the project in 2003.

The students spoke about the environmental benefits of the turbine, which UI officials say is an important first step in a long-term goal of becoming a carbon-neutral campus by 2050. UI officials have said the 1.65-megawatt turbine is expected to offset about 1 percent on the campus’ electrical needs.

“It’s obviously going to be a symbol for the university,” said Parker Laubach, vice president of the student group.

Laubach said the group was caught off-guard by Hogan’s recommitment to the project, but they continue to rally to push budgeters to find a different way than student fees to fund the $700,000 balance of the project.

“It really hurts student projects,” Laubach said.