MINONK – As far as construction is concerned, the Minonk wind-energy farm is halfway home.
As far as legalities are concerned, a more circuitous journey appears likely.
The construction, at least, is visible to anybody who drives along Illinois Route 116 southeast of Minonk.
According to the developer of the wind farm, Gamesa Technology Corp., 50 of the 100 turbines planned for the site have been erected. Many of those completed turbines stand south of Route 116. For now, their blades are stationary.
North of the highway, construction cranes lift sections of towers and blades into place.
The wind farm is on target to be producing energy by late November or early December, project manager Duane Enger said. By then, perhaps, the status of its ownership – and its status with Woodford County officials – will be settled.
Gamesa has agreed to sell the Minonk project to a Canadian renewable-energy company. According to Gamesa, the special-use permit Woodford County officials issued for the project is transferable, if the County Board approves and if the company follows a process it says is outlined in the permit.
Some County Board members cite a zoning ordinance that prohibits the transfer of special-use permits. Anything contrary to that in Gamesa’s permit is illegal, they say.
“If you own a business and ownership changes, in my opinion, that special use goes out the window,” said Doug Huser, chairman of the County Board conservation, planning and zoning committee.
None of this puts the Minonk project in jeopardy, according to Jiddu Tapia, chief development officer of Gamesa North America. But it does provide another wrinkle in an effort that’s had a few.
“The project is going to get built. It’s going to move forward,” Tapia said. “But just like any business, if you want to sell your business and make a profit, you’ve got to follow the process to get to the end game. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
‘Backwoods country boy’
That process began last week, during a zoning committee meeting in Eureka that bordered on confrontational.
Nothing about Gamesa’s special-use permit, according to company officials, interferes with Algonquin Power & Utilities Corp.’s intent to purchase majority ownership of the Minonk wind farm.
Minonk is among four wind farms Gamesa agreed in March to sell to Algonquin in a deal valued at about $888 million. The others are in Iowa, Pennsylvania and Texas.
Gamesa plans to sell all of its interest in those wind farms, although it has a 20-year deal to operate and maintain them. That is consistent with Gamesa’s business model, according to Tapia.
“We’re very, very good at developing and constructing, and they’re very good at owning and operating,” he said in reference to Algonquin.
The special-use permit is in the name of Minonk Wind LLC, a situation that would not change, according to Gamesa officials.
“Say Caterpillar (Inc.) is an owner of the permit. Deere (& Co.) wants to buy Caterpillar,” said Pauline Doohan, an attorney for Gamesa. “That’s sort of what we’re doing. We’re not selling the permit. We’re changing ownership of the owner of the permit.”
Huser and other zoning committee members disputed that interpretation.
“I’m not just a backwoods country boy, and I know an end run coming at me when I see one,” Huser said.
Said colleague Tom Evans: “This boils down to changing the rules so these people can get the financing to do what they want to do. I don’t buy that.”
Multiple sources indicated the conflict is rooted in the County Board’s approval in July 2010 of the Minonk project.
The board adopted much of the contract wording already in force in Livingston County, where 25 of the Minonk-project turbines are based. That included wording that allows transfer of special-use permits.
“We knew from the beginning there was a problem with the contract,” board member Duane Kingdon said. “We’ve been trying to get this worked out for eons.”
Livingston County ordinances do not address transfer of special-use permits; that is handled on a case-by-case basis, according to zoning official Chuck Schopp.
Kingdon and others on the committee believe Gamesa and Algonquin need to state their cases to the Woodford County Zoning Board of Appeals so a new special-use permit can be issued.
“If you want to go to the ZBA and get approval, I’ll be happy to approve,” Huser said. “Why should you get any more special treatment than me?”
At one contentious point during the meeting, Tapia said there were counties that help businesses and counties that don’t. Afterward, however, he characterized this dispute as a matter of semantics.
“I don’t think anyone conceptually is against giving us the consent here,” he said. “We never said we shouldn’t be following the process to get the consent. I think there’s confusion related to what the process is.”
Woodford County State’s Attorney Greg Minger appears to concur.
“I think we just need to talk it out,” he said.
Eating, drinking, sleeping
The special-use dispute flared about four months after the County Board rejected an amendment that would codify the Minonk project’s exemption from wind farm restrictions enacted in February. Gamesa officials favored an amendment, but instead the board approved a resolution that incorporated the amendment text.
The action in the boardrooms, however, doesn’t seem to be affecting the action in the beanfields.
Construction of the Minonk wind farm began in earnest last spring. The number of workers has fluctuated between 250 and 300, according to Enger.
Some Woodford County Board members believe the project is not employing enough of their constituents. During a board meeting last month, Enger stated only six employees appeared to fit that criterion.
During the zoning committee meeting, however, Enger stated 76 percent of project workers were sourced through Roanoke-based Local 996 of the Laborers International Union of North America.
Not all of those workers live in Woodford County, but many project employees appear to be making an impression on Minonk businesses.
At Motel 6 in Minonk, wind farm workers have booked between 10 and 15 of its 40 rooms, according to front desk employee Jack Patel. Nick Petri, owner of a downtown restaurant and bar, said his business has increased at least 15 percent since wind farm construction began.
“They’ve all been real nice ladies and gentlemen,” Petri said last week as he served a customer at Petri’s Pour House. “They’re shopping at grocery stores, at Casey’s (General Store), Dollar General. In this economy, you know it’s going to go away, so you better take advantage of it while you can.”
That might be true for the construction aspect of the project. But Algonquin’s overall time line appears to differ.
“We’re looking at this as a long-term investment,” said April Meyer, an Algonquin technical services manager.
“Our business structure is, whenever possible, to retain the original equipment provider to provide expertise to the project. From that perspective, we feel that’s going to give the project the longevity it needs.”
All that seems to remain is for Gamesa, Algonquin and the County Board to give the assurances all sides appear to need. It looks as if there still are a few more bends in that road.
“The process takes time, lawyers and understanding,” Tapia said. “I think we’ll get there.”
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