PAXTON – Tom Harrison’s three-acre property east of Paxton could soon be surrounded by 400-foot-tall wind turbines, and he isn’t real excited about the change in scenery.
“I feel it is going to really mess up the landscape of Central Illinois,” said Harrison. “I mean, this is farming community. This is not a ‘wind industrial’ or ‘wind community.’ It’s going to really mess up the horizon and our landscape.”
Harrison said he will be living within 1,100 feet of one turbine and within a mile of three turbines proposed as part of E.On Climate & Renewables’ 94-turbine Pioneer Trail Wind Farm. Besides the new scenery, he said he is concerned about the noise and shadow flicker the turbines could produce and the possible effects on his health and on the value of his property as a result.
Harrison is an example of a “non-participating landowner,” a term that describes a property owner who has a home within the footprint of a wind farm but is not leasing his land for the project or receiving compensation from the developer.
Non-participating landowners have often been the vocal minority in the wind farm debate, arguing for deeper setbacks and other restrictions to protect their quality of life. But their protest has come with mixed results in Ford and Iroquois counties. They managed to help push through an increase in setbacks in Iroquois County this spring; but so far, they have fought an uphill battle in Ford County, whose county board has yet to discuss requested changes to the wind farm zoning ordinance it adopted in March 2006.
“The board isn’t listening to me,” Harrison said. “They’re listening to the farmer (who stands to benefit from leasing his land to the developer).”
Changes might be considered soon, however, after last week’s meeting between the Ford County Board and members of Energize Illinois, a grassroots organization based in Ford County that is actively fighting development by the wind industry statewide.
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Energize Illinois provided board members with a three-ring binder at the end of last week’s meeting containing information for them to review. The information, found on the Internet, makes claims about a wind farm’s effect on property values and residents’ health, among others, if turbines are sited too close to homes. The information also makes claims about problems with the wind industry as a whole.
Energize Illinois asked the board to review the information with the hope the board will change the county’s “outdated” ordinance to address issues that have come to light regarding inadequate setbacks and decommissioning plans.
Cindy Ihrke, a member of the group, also requested the board adopt a minimum one-year moratorium on approving any further wind farms in Ford County, which already has three approved. The moratorium would give the board time to research and review issues surrounding wind farms and “learn from the experience first-hand” from three projects that have already been permitted, Ihrke said.
Chairman Rick Bowen said he expects the board to discuss possible revisions at its regular meeting in August. Bowen said the board’s zoning committee will then be assigned the task to review the existing ordinance, and more board members will likely be assigned to the committee, which currently only has one, its chairman, Jason Johnson.
Tom McQuinn, a Ford County Board member who represents Harrison’s district in rural Paxton, said after last week’s meeting that he will be pushing for an increase in the setback between “non-participating primary structures” and wind turbines. McQuinn said Ford County’s existing setback of 1,000 feet is too close.
“I think (a setback increase) would have to help,” McQuinn said, adding that there are a lot of unanswered questions about wind farms.
“The problem (with wind farms) is nobody really knows how it’s going to affect property values and health because there hasn’t been that many of these built and not until recently in populated areas,” McQuinn said.
Other board members, including Bob Lindgren of rural Loda, Randy Ferguson of Gibson City and Tim Nuss of rural Roberts, said after the meeting that they, too, would consider a review of possible ordinance revisions, including changes to setbacks.
“Some of the information greatly opened my eyes,” said Nuss. “We need to investigate more” about setbacks and decommissioning issues.
“I want to cover our bases while we’ve still got the chance. .. We have to think about the long term.”
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Still, some are not convinced the issues are worth reviewing based on the information provided.
Board member Pat Haskins of Sibley said she is open to exploring options, but she also expressed reservations about the reliability of information provided to the board by Energize Illinois.
“Some of the information seemed very one-sided,” she said. “I’ve talked to other county board members from some of the other counties with existing wind farms, and they have not encountered these problems.”
Bowen, along with board member Gene May, also questioned the reliability of the information presented.
“It seemed like a lot of what was presented was opinion,” Bowen said. “So far, it appears there’s a lot of newspaper articles expressing maybe the author’s opinion or the opinions of the persons they were interviewing. And those aren’t necessarily facts.
“I’m slowly working my way through the material, and if I find something that sticks out and shouts at me that I can find additional documentation on, that is factual, that’s what I’m looking for – something that comes from a reliable source and can be supported in different ways,” Bowen said. “I don’t want someone opinion. I want real data.
“And from the material that I pulled off of the meeting itself, I’m not sure there was enough data presented to me to suggest or recommend any changes.”
Kevin Borgia, executive director of the Illinois Wind Energy Association, a group that promotes wind farm development, said he is aware of Energize Illinois and the information it has been circulating against the wind industry. In a phone interview Monday, he urged the county board to talk with experts to refute the group’s claims.
“Cindy Ihrke and Rich Porter (another member of Energize Illinois) and the others, they’re not experts,” Borgia said. “I don’t know what their professions are, but I know they are not medical doctors, and they’re not experts in energy policy in the least. They’re not experts in project siting; they’re not engineers.
“If the Ford County Board wants to make rational decisions, they need to speak to experts with experience and knowledge in those areas.”
Larry Knilands, Ford County’s zoning officer, said Monday that he has been researching issues surrounding wind farms since he became zoning officer three years ago, and the issues brought up by Energize Illinois “aren’t new.” He said one problem is that many of the issues are disputable or hard to calculate.
“I think it all boils down to how the county board perceives what it is told,” Knilands said. “We now need to determine if the things that were said are reliable, and valid.”’
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If for no other reason, Ferguson said, he would like to consider changes to Ford County’s wind turbine setbacks and other issues simply to avoid the “controversy.”
“I would be in favor of a one-year moratorium,” Ferguson said, adding that it would help the county determine, through experience, how wind farms are working in the county.
When it comes to setbacks, the county has three options to consider: (1) making no change to its zoning ordinance, (2) changing its zoning ordinance to reflect deeper setbacks or (3) rescinding its wind farm zoning ordinance to prevent wind farms from coming to the county. Knilands pointed out, however, that the second option should not be made with the purpose of achieving the third.
Adopting a 2,000-foot setback, as was proposed this year in Iroquois County, for example, would be so restrictive that it would likely do just that, Knilands said – and Ford County Board members need to remember the economic impact of any decision they make.
“You can spend a lot of time crafting regulations intending to push wind development out of the county, or you can just pass a ban and be done with it, because that’s what the end goal is (with too restrictive setbacks),” Borgia said.
In Illinois, generally setbacks range from 1,000 feet to 1,200 feet, Borgia said. Iroquois County’s newly adopted setback of 1,500 feet from non-participating primary structures is believed to be the largest in the state, but not restrictive enough to prevent a wind farm entirely, Borgia said.
Board members Bud Otto and Bob Lindgren said they would not mind discussing a larger setback, but they do not want to make it so restrictive that wind farms will not come to Ford County.
“I know there’s a lot of landowners who are looking forward to the success of it,” Lindgren said.
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Any changes to the zoning ordinance would not affect projects already permitted in Ford County.
That’s bad news for Harrison, who feels he never got a say on how close turbines could be placed from his home.
“I guess I’m going to have to live with it,” Harrison said.
Harrison wants the board to make changes to the zoning ordinance, though, to protect others from having to go through the same issues he is concerned about.
“I would hope the board would do something for those people,” Harrison said.
Harrison said he doubts any action will be taken, though.
“I don’t think the county is going to do anything. I think their minds are set, and they’re going to stick with they have (in their existing ordinance),” Harrison said.
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