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Lee County keeps rubber stamp in storage; Wind company faces another big hurdle for turbine plans

DIXON – Lee County does not plan to use the rubber stamp this time.

Historically, wind energy companies have driven the county’s process in reviewing proposed wind farms. In 2006, the county’s zoning board approved a company’s proposed findings of fact, word for word.

That has opened the county to charges that it’s the tool of the wind industry at the expense of residents.

The county’s Zoning Board of Appeals has scheduled nine meetings next month to draft the findings of fact for a proposed wind farm – the determinations about how the wind farm would affect such things as utilities and the environment.

Previously, the entire process of approving a wind farm took one meeting.

At a 2006 zoning board meeting, an attorney for the proposed Shady Oaks wind farm near Compton presented proposed findings of fact. Those findings stated, among other things, that the turbines would have no effect on the character of the neighborhood or on public health and safety.

The board approved the language as presented.

Since then, local opposition to wind farms has increased. Neighbors complain about noise, vibrations and shadow flicker from turbines. And they say wind farms have reduced the value of their properties.

For the latest wind farm – Ireland-based Mainstream Renewable Power’s Green River project in southwest Lee County – the zoning board held 26 meetings that took up 65 hours. Now, the decision-making process begins.

Zoning Administrator Chris Henkel acknowledged the board would handle the findings of fact differently.

“It should be done by the board,” he said. “That’s part of the process.”

Vince Green, Mainstream’s project manager, said the approval process for wind farms is becoming more drawn out.

“That’s the future of wind development,” he said. “Maybe in the past, wind developers have written findings of fact, but things are changing all over.”

He said it’s good for the industry to be questioned.

“We shouldn’t be hiding anything,” he said.

State’s attorney ‘a straight shooter’

Last summer, the Whiteside County Planning and Zoning Commission recommended the approval of nine turbines as part of the same Mainstream wind farm. The County Board followed that advice.

Before the commission met, Stuart Richter, the county’s planning and zoning administrator, drafted the findings of fact and conditions for the wind farm. He submitted them to then-State’s Attorney Gary Spencer and County Administrator Joel Horn for review, but neither responded.

The commission made only minor changes to Richter’s proposal.

In Bureau County, the zoning board doesn’t have written findings of fact prepared before it begins its decision-making process, said Kristine Donarski, the county’s zoning officer.

“They consider the evidence that is given,” Donarski said. “The standards are written in our zoning ordinance. They see if the project meets the standards.”

Franklin Grove resident Jim Timble, an opponent of the proposed Mainstream wind farm, credited the new Lee County state’s attorney, Anna Sacco-Miller, with bringing more openness to the process.

The state’s attorney’s office, he said, advised the zoning board not to rubberstamp any proposed findings of fact.

Sacco-Miller also has been praised for pushing the county to post wind hearing transcripts online, a practice fought by her predecessor, Henry Dixon.

“She’s a straight shooter and goes by the law,” Timble said.

County has ‘totally ignored’ process

In the coming meetings, Timble said, he and others plan to raise the issue of the effects of the wind turbines on agriculture. County regulations prevent development that reduces the amount of prime farmland.

For wind farms, however, the county hasn’t used a scoring system to determine whether land is prime. The footprint of turbines, officials say, isn’t big enough to trigger the regulations.

Timble disagrees.

“The county has totally ignored the process,” he said. “The process is to protect farmland.”

Public invited

The Lee County Zoning Board of Appeals will meet at 7 p.m. April 10 in the County Board meeting room on the third floor of the Old County Courthouse, 112 E. Second St.

The board will begin the decision-making process on the proposed Mainstream Renewable Power wind farm.

If needed, other meetings are scheduled for the same time and place April 11, 12, 23, 24, 25, 26, 29 and 30.

For more information, visit the county’s website at www.countyoflee.org or call the zoning office at 815-288-3643.