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Turbines, money and neighbors

WALNUT – Following a three-hour meeting before a standing room only audience, the Walnut Planning Commission decided to postpone any decision on wind turbines outside the village limits.

“We need to be educated ourselves,” said Commissioner Gary Sarver. “I would just like to have a little more information.”

Walnut thought it had the issue settled on July 5 when the board approved an ordinance that would have banned wind turbines within one mile beyond the corporate boundaries, and required special approval for any between 1 and 1.5 miles of the village.

However, the approval was voided because the ordinance first needed to go before the planning commission for a public hearing and consideration.

On Wednesday, about 60 people crammed into the meeting room for the hearing; wind turbine supporters clustered on one side of the room, and objectors gathered on the other.

Village Attorney Rob LeSage recapped recent events regarding the ordinance and told the commissioners their options. If they recommended approval of the ordinance, it would go back to the board for a simple majority vote. It they didn’t recommend approval, the board would need to approve it by a three-fourths majority, or six of the seven trustees.

Rick Porter, attorney for the 37 Bureau County residents who have filed suit against Walnut Ridge and the Bureau County Board, said he had reviewed the ordinance and had grave concerns. Porter said the ordinance had no provisions for property value protection, and no shadow flicker or noise studies.

Walnut resident Tom Broeren said he was not pro-wind, but pro-county. Although he didn’t like the looks of the turbines, he said the money they would bring in was important. If the turbines were banned within the 1.5 mile limit, it would take more than $136,638 away from the Bureau Valley School District every year.

Marcia Magnuson then spoke of the need to protect the village. She said the income from the 12 turbines wouldn’t be lost because the company would simply move them outside the 1.5 mile limit.

Magnuson said letting turbines in closer would take away any room for the village to develop.

“Who’s going to want to come to a town that’s surrounded by wind turbines?” she said.

Jeff Wagenknecht lives two miles from the Big Sky turbines, and said the noise was so loud they should be called wind factories instead of wind farms. Wagenknecht said he filed a complaint when Walnut Ridge was trying to get its conditional use permits extended, and the company was extremely helpful.

“Now, after the vote, I can’t get a phone call returned,” he said.

James Schoff said he would have no problem living around wind turbines. He said many businesses are noisy and said he’s adapted to the noise from the Sunset Ridge motorcycle track because it brings in revenue.

Steve Hardy, Walnut Township highway commissioner, also was thinking about money, and said the 12 turbines would provide $14,000 per year for the fire department and more for all of the other taxing bodies.

Hardy said he didn’t know if the wind turbines were the best solution.

“But they’re the only solution,” he said.

Ron Bohm said he’s enjoying raising his children in Walnut but is scared of the economic issues facing the village without the turbines.

“We’re hoping that our children have the opportunity to come back here,” he said. “I don’t think we’re selling ourselves to the devil.”

Marcia Thompson was concerned that the focus was on money.

“There are a lot of people who are suffering because of your want of money,” she told the supporters.

After two hours of statements and rebuttals, LeSage said it was obvious no one liked the ordinance. Supporters didn’t want the turbines banned, and those in opposition wanted a total ban.

But LeSage didn’t think a total ban was possible, despite what Porter said.

“Walnut can regulate wind farms,” he said. “But the power to regulate is not the power to prohibit.”

LeSage said he and the lawyers he works with reviewed the same legal cases as Porter but came to a different conclusion about the legality of a ban.

“Looking at me and shrugging isn’t going to change my mind,” LeSage said to one objector.

Sarver and several board members said they weren’t prepared to decide immediately.

“I don’t want to hurt the school, but I don’t want to hurt the town either,” Sarver said.

The commissioners asked for expert testimony on both sides of the issue. LeSage said he was sure the wind turbine company would be happy to send someone, but Porter warned expert testimony against the turbines would be expensive.

The commissioners agreed to table the issue and reconvene on Aug. 17.

“If we make a mistake, it’s a long-term mistake,” Commissioner Joanne Stiver said.