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Winds blow favorably for Walnut Ridge

PRINCETON – After weeks of debate and public input, the Bureau County Board has voted 16 to 7 to grant three-year extensions for the existing conditional use permits and variances for the Walnut Ridge wind farm.

The existing permits and variances for the 150-turbine Walnut Ridge were received in 2008 by developers Midwest Wind Energy. The permits and variances were to expire later this year. With the county board’s ruling, the extensions are now good until Dec. 31, 2014.

In bringing up the extension issue to the board, Zoning Committee Chairman Marsha Lilley said the zoning committee did not reach a recommendation for the full county board. The earlier Zoning Board of Appeals hearing on the extension request, which concluded March 31, resulted in a split vote, with three members recommending denial of the extensions and two members recommending approval of the extension request.

Thursday’s motion to grant the extensions was made by county board member Joe Bassetti, with the second coming from Dan Rabe.

Voting in favor of approving the extension requests for the $500 million Walnut Ridge project were Bassetti, Rabe, Mike Maynard, Bob McCook, Rob Pozzi, Loretta Volker, Kristi Warren, Ralph Anderson, John Baracani, Joe Bertetto, Tom Dobrich, Deb Feeney, Tom Giordano, Mike Kohr, Marsha Lilley, and Mary Jane Marini.

Voting against the extensions were Steve Sondgeroth, Jim Thompson, Marc Wilt, Jim Donarski, Marshann Entwhistle, Gary Forristall and Dale Anderson.

Board member Robert Albrecht, who lives in the Ohio area, abstained from the vote. Absent were board members Mark Pierson and Laura Rose.

During the discussion of the motion, Kohr said he supported granting the extension. Walnut Ridge is a project which will bring millions of dollars into the county annually, as well as provide 10-15 good-paying jobs and one-time permit fees. The county needs to welcome the wind farm developers and work through any problems, he said.

When asked by Bassetti about previous extension requests, Zoning Officer Kris Donarski said the county board did grant extensions for 16 turbines for the Big Sky project and also granted extensions for Crescent Ridge II, south of Tiskilwa, though the Crescent Ridge extensions were not acted upon. The county board has not denied any extension requests, she said.

During the earlier public comment portion of Thursday’s meeting, the board heard from several objectors, including Deanna Wilt, Roger Gillan, Steve Hamrick and attorney Rick Porter, representing a group of objectors.

In his comments, Hamrick said Bureau County was fooled by the Crescent Ridge wind farm developers, the Providence Heights developers and by the Big Sky Developers. The county board was fooled into thinking there wouldn’t be problems and a diminished quality of life for area residents because of the wind farms. Now, his question was whether the county board would be fooled again, this time by Walnut Ridge, Hamrick said.

Addressing the board on behalf of the Walnut Ridge extensions were Tim Polz, representing Midwest Wind Energy, and participating landowner Charles Meisenheimer, who said he spoke on behalf of the participating landowners.

With the development of wind farms, the county stands at the door of opportunity, with a positive economic impact for area taxing bodies as well as participating landowners, Meisenheimer said. Walnut Ridge will cause an increased EAV (Equalized Assessed Valuation) for the area of more than $2.6 million, which doesn’t take into account the more than $2 million collected by the county in one time fees and permits. The county needs to embrace wind energy and the economic advancements it brings, Meisenheimer said.