March 10, 2013

Wind farm complaints prompt review of rules

Tracy Moss | The News-Gazette | 03/10/2013 |

HOPE – Michael Creech had planned to retire at the family homestead, a two-story farmhouse among square miles of farmland east of Hope in western Vermilion County.

But he said he’s changed his mind now that the California Ridge wind farm started operation, mostly because of the noise. The Creech property is surrounded on all sides by wind turbines, part of the first wind farm in Vermilion and Champaign counties, about 134 turbines altogether.

The wind farm has been operational for less than a year, and some residents in Vermilion County, including Creech, are asking the county board to make some changes in the county’s wind ordinance based on concerns in Pilot Township, where most of the turbines in Vermilion County are located.

Pilot Township Highway Commissioner Roy Knight told board members they can do a better job of balancing the interests of the residents, especially those not leasing their land to the wind farms, with the wind farm developers.

The biggest issue is with setbacks, the minimum distance a wind turbine can be built from something, like a house or a property line.

Any proposed changes could not affect Invenergy’s California Ridge project, but could hinder an expansion of that project or new projects in the county.

Vermilion County Board Chairman Gary Weinard said it’s not clear whether there will be any more wind development in Vermilion. Invenergy has expressed interest in a phase two of its California Ridge farm but has no immediate plans, according to Weinard. And a separate proposal, the 43-turbine Hoopeston Wind project, has a county permit for construction, but hasn’t moved forward due to ownership changes. A new company, Apex Wind Energy Inc., recently bought the Hoopeston Wind farm project, and county officials said the permit for that project is good through April 2014.

That has motivated residents and at least one county board member, Chuck Nesbitt, R-District 3, who want changes to the county’s ordinance. Nesbitt and a handful of residents officially asked Vermilion County Board members on Feb. 28 to place a moratorium on wind turbine construction and consider changes to existing regulations, particularly how closely turbines can be built to a house or property line.

Vermilion’s current ordinance requires a setback of 1,200 feet from a house, but Nesbitt is proposing a quarter-mile from any property line and at least a half-mile from the closest primary structure, like a house. But Weinard said such setbacks would eliminate any wind farm development, because so few sites would meet the setbacks.

John Hall, director of planning and zoning with Champaign County, said setbacks there are 1,200 feet from a primary structure, but to the property line of a non-participating property owner, the setback is 1.5 times the height of the wind turbine, which, in the case of California Ridge, is 750 feet.

Hall said the Vermilion County proposal for a quarter-mile from any property line would prevent wind farms altogether.

Hall said there’s been no discussion in Champaign County about increasing setbacks. And, he said, there could be more development as there’s one company, Aries, trying to sign leases with landowners in the northwestern part of the county.

Creech told Vermilion County Board members on Feb. 28 that the turbines are noisy and create a shadow flicker effect at times. In an interview at his home, Creech said the noise is not an issue in the winter when his windows are closed. But in the warmer months, he often has the windows open because he has no central air conditioning, and it’s noisy.

Creech said there are three different noises, a whooshing sound from the blades turning, a droning noise that he compares to a jet engine, and noise from the motors when the turbines change position. The droning sound is more constant, while the level and regularity of the other noises depends on wind speed and other conditions, he said. The shadow flicker also isn’t as much an issue in the winter, he said, because the flickering occurs when the sun’s rays and the turbines are both at certain angles. He said the flicker comes from the morning sun hitting the nearest turbine, which is a little more than 1,000 feet to the southeast of his house, creating an intermittent shadow through the windows on the back side of his house.

Creech said closing the windows and the curtains solves the issue.

“But when you live in the country, you don’t want to close yourself in a shutter box,” he said, adding that part of the appeal of living in the country is experiencing it.

Creech also worries whether the wind farm will hurt property values and make a property more difficult to sell. The homestead, he said, is still owned by his mother, who lives in Urbana, and the turbine closest to the house is on his mother’s property.

Nesbitt said he’s talked to other residents who live among the California Ridge turbines, and he hears concerns with noise and flicker and believes the county should approve a moratorium and consider ordinance changes.

Rankin-area residents Kim and Darrell Cambron also want a moratorium and support Nesbitt’s setbacks. The Cambrons’ property would have turbines nearby if the Hoopeston Wind project moves forward, and they’ve been lobbying the county board for more than a year. In response to the Cambrons, the Vermilion County Board bumped up its original setbacks of 1,000 feet to 1,200 feet in late 2011. The California Ridge project already had its permit, so its setbacks are 1,000 feet.

Nesbitt is the first county board member to ask the board formally to consider changes, and the county board executive committee’s response is to hold a public hearing to better gauge what concerns there may be among residents. The county has not yet scheduled that hearing, and the committee does not intend to consider a moratorium or changes until the hearing is held.

The main mission of the proposed changes is to protect the wishes of the non-participating property owners, who don’t want to lease their land for a wind turbine and don’t want one near them, according to Nesbitt and others in support of a moratorium.

Nesbitt said counties across the country have revisited and changed their setbacks and other requirements once an initial wind farm is up and running. Nesbitt also mentioned safety concerns as two blades in the new wind farm have already failed. He’s also proposed that the county’s structural safety committee, which permits the wind turbines, become a standing committee of county board members, rather than community officials, that would handle the permit process and oversee safety matters concerning wind turbine construction, day-to-day maintenance and the decommissioning of the systems.

Bill Donahue, the county’s attorney, said Nesbitt’s proposed setbacks would effectively kill any new wind farm expansion or project. He said at issue are competing rights of property owners in a county that has no zoning. Without zoning, the county can require something be built to a certain level of safety, but not whether a person can or cannot use his land to build something that’s legal, he said. Vermilion County cannot tell property owners how to use their land, he said, and if those setbacks were initiated it would be a form of “back-door zoning.”

Donahue said passing an open-ended moratorium could be a legal problem for the county as well.

Creech and the Cambrons maintain that they have property rights too that are being violated, because neighbors can lease their land for wind turbines within 1,000 feet of their houses, regardless of how close the property line is.

Creech said when the county allows the wind turbines to be so close to a neighboring property, then it is encroaching on his property rights, even possibly his ability to sell his property.

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