Midwest Wind Energy will have its chance to prove its commitment to the Walnut Ridge wind farm in northern Bureau County. Bureau County Board on Thursday voted to approve the developer’s applications for extensions to conditional use permits and associated variances for 150 turbines and other structures that would have expired later this year.
The vote to approve the extensions passed despite a recommendation from the zoning board of appeals to deny the applications. Since issuance of the conditional use permits in 2008, the developer has not initiated construction or even requested any building permits. Yet during the zoning board of appeals hearing, developers testified they had already invested several million dollars in the $500 million project and intended to see it through.
“Regardless of what percentage it is, $3.2 million is still a lot of money involved in a project, and secondarily we do have to take into account that we have been through some hard economic times the last three years,” said county board member Mike Maynard.
The board has granted extensions to wind farms in the past, for 16 turbines in the Big Sky project and others in Crescent Ridge II, although the latter were not acted on, according to zoning director Kris Donarski.
The county board passed the motion by Joe Bassetti to approve the extensions to Walnut Ridge’s permits 16-7 with one abstention.
The conditional use permits held by Walnut Ridge are now valid through Dec. 31, 2014.
The board then voted down a motion by Loretta Volker to set the wheels in motion toward a temporary moratorium on acceptance of any new permit applications from wind farms until Nov. 30.
Donarski said a moratorium or “time out” would give the county time to research, draft and approve text amendments to zoning ordinances that have been deemed too loose to protect the county’s and citizens’ interests. Issues such as noise and shadow flicker studies, setbacks, roads agreements and decommissioning plans all need to be addressed.
“It is possible to change the zoning ordinance without having a moratorium or time out in place. The danger lies in someone not respecting the fact that the county is in the process of changing and … sneaking under the wire before those things have changed,” said Donarski.
Bassetti suggested the zoning committee could pursue changes to the ordinances during its next couple of meetings without a moratorium.
“We can get a lot of the things hopefully underway, especially if we do get Kris (Donarski) some help, that we don’t need to go into a time out,” said Bassetti.
After voting down the moratorium 7-17, the board unanimously passed a motion by Steve Sondgeroth directing the zoning committee to quickly start the process of amending existing zoning ordinances. The board also voted unanimously to authorize Donarski to spend up to $40,000 on part-time help to assist her in researching and drafting amendments to the zoning ordinances.
Also at Thursday’s meeting, the board voted 14-10 to maintain the number of county board members at 26 for the next 10 years.
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