LINCOLN – Last Thursday, the Zoning Board of Appeals listened to testimony on a new application for a Meridien Wind Farm. The public hearing beginning at 7:30 p.m. was held at the high school in Mount Pulaski. The company recently sought to construct a wind farm in Logan County, and need to be granted a conditional use permit to do so. The application was denied by the Logan County Board in February due to a tie vote among the members.
In April, Relight returned to the county to hold community meetings on their proposed revisions to the project and gather feedback on the potential project.
Relight has filed a new zoning application, which requires a new public hearing process. ZBA Chairman Doug Thompson began by saying that this is a brand new application hearing, not a continuation of the previous one. In June, the Logan County Regional Planning Commission unanimously voted to recommend approving the new wind farm application.
Wayne Woo and William Kelsey were present at the hearing on behalf of Relight. Relight is based in Italy, and they are the developers behind the Meridien Wind Farm. Woo is one of the owners of Relight, and Kelsey is a consultant Relight has hired for the project.
For a little under three hours, the Zoning Board listened to testimony from the Relight representatives, from citizens concerned about the project, and from supporters of the wind farm. The first presenter was Wayne Woo, who summarized the potential revisions since the previous application.
According to the proposed revisions, the wind farm would still consist of 81 wind turbines. The towers would generate a little under two megawatts, which is reduced from the three-megawatt towers in the previous application. The towers would measure under 492 feet, although a specific number was not given; a number as low as 427 feet was mentioned in the presentation. Woo said there is not a specific model that has been decided on, but there is a list of potential models in the application, and Relight will choose one of those models for all 81 turbines.
Setbacks from houses would average at 2,100 feet (ordinance requires at least a 1,000 foot setback from homes); and the turbines would generate ten percent less sound at night than the legal limits. In total, the project would encompass nearly 23,000 acres. This number is increased from before, because Relight included a one-third mile footprint instead of a quarter-mile, due to concerns raised by people living just outside the one-quarter mile radius.
The project would represent a $300 million investment in the county, including $44 million in property taxes over twenty-five years. Non-participating land owners in the one-third mile footprint would receive $750 per parcel per year (up from $5 per acre), and non-participating tenants in the area would receive $250 per turbine within 3,000 feet of their residence.
Additionally, Relight would be willing to make additional payments in various donations during the life of the project. “We’ll still be paying $50,000 per year to School District 23, because that’s what we promised verbally,” said Woo. Woo also said that a community benefit fund would be set up for Mount Pulaski with a one-time payment of $250,000 and $50,000 every year once the project is operational. Woo also said that it would only be fair for Broadwell and Elkhart (combined) to receive a similar donation as roughly half of the project surrounds those communities as well. Adding together those donations with a few others comes to a total of $14.5 million over a twenty-five year period.
“We will not be specifying how those additional funds will be used. The recipients of these funds will have no obligation to us,” said Woo.
On the subject of decommissioning funds, Woo said Relight is willing to put bonds in place or create an escrow account that will adjust for inflation over time, so that turbines can be removed, should it be necessary, at no cost to taxpayers. Should the turbines need to be removed, it would cost around $14 million and take about a year. Additionally, Woo said Relight would have the plan reviewed every five years to ensure satisfaction.
Another issue discussed heavily in previous hearings was the effect on property values and whether or not Relight could financially help people who have to move away from the footprint. Woo said that Relight would be willing to provide a financial insurance policy at an amount of up to $1 million per year for such events. Woo also said that from what research he could do, there is “just not enough data to justify a decrease in property values.”
On the subject of noise reduction, Woo reiterated that the turbines would utilize noise reduction software to lower the amount of sound that is emitted at night. Woo compared the noise level of these machines to that of common household appliances. Additionally, Relight will turn off the turbines at night from August through mid-October.
Woo said that one of the questions they could not answer previously was on the amount of actual land that would hold the turbines. “We’ve done the calculation, and 81 turbines will take up roughly 83 acres in total,” said Woo. Roughly 60 of those acres would account for roadways that would have to be built by Relight to get to the turbine spots. Woo also said that Relight will repair public roads that are damaged or altered in the construction process, as well as any damaged drainage tiles.
Thompson asked if Woo could clarify further on the property value policy and how property owners could claim the wind farm lowered their value. Woo equated it to any other insurance policy in which a claim is filed. “We’re not going to be prescriptive about how people can do it,” said Woo. “I suppose one could look into comparables in the market and look at other factors such as the state of the property, age, etc…”
Thompson asked if there was a data-sharing agreement with the National Weather Service. Woo said there is one written, and they are waiting on final signatures.
Thompson asked if Relight has other projects in the United States. Woo said there are plans for projects in other states, but this one is the farthest along in planning and permits. Woo said they want to use this project as model for building in other areas.
Thompson also asked about clarification on shadow flicker, which is a concern raised at previous hearings. Shadow flicker occurs when light hits a turbine blade in just the right way to create a flickering effect. Woo said that after conducting worst-case scenario studies, shadow flicker should only occur at sunrise or sunset in bright, windy conditions, and only affect east or west facing windows, for less than thirty total hours out of the year.
Judy Graff asked about remedying shadow flicker should there be a complaint. Woo said Relight would be willing to speak to those affected by shadow flicker and work out a way to fix it on an individual basis.
Cheryl Baker, a resident of Emden, spoke in favor of the project. Baker said she lives within a mile of seven wind turbines in Emden. Baker said she likes wind towers because they use a green power source. Baker said the semis driving down the highway are louder than the turbines, shadow flicker has never bothered her, and she likes the way the towers look.
“The wind tower roads they put in are a big help to the farmers, too,” said Baker. Baker also said the lease money they receive is nice as well.
Joli Boerma, another resident of Emden, also spoke in favor of the wind farm. Boerma said her family also enjoys the aesthetics of the wind farm. Boerma said her relatives use the access roads left behind to get to remote parts of their fields.
Mount Pulaski Mayor Jim Fuhrer also spoke in favor of the project. Fuhrer said he sees this as a good opportunity to bring jobs and help for the schools and the community.
Joan Buckles said she has found two types of research when searching for information on wind farms. The first type of research she found was peer-reviewed scientific articles that could draw no correlation between wind turbines and complaints surrounding them, aside from annoyance. The second type was “popular literatures” that make a wind farms sound like “the apocalypse.”
“When that didn’t work, we tried to discredit Relight or people working for them,” said Buckles. Buckles said she sees this as an opportunity to satisfy “wants,” such as the want for new roads and the desire to keep the school in operation.
On the topic of School District 23, Leslie Hilt, the Road Commissioner in Mount Pulaski, asked if the Mount Pulaski School District donation would be made even though the school board voted to decline entering into a written contract. Woo confirmed that the donations would still be made by Relight “with no strings attached.”
“The money’s going to be there anyway. They’re going to go ahead and give the school the money,” said Hilt.
Hilt said he tried to stay neutral in this process so far to the best of his ability. Hilt said as Road Commissioner, he noticed that the roads in Mount Pulaski could get $60,000 per year from Relight. For comparison, the road district gets $120,000 in tax revenues per year.
Hilt said he sees this as the only way to get a better school in Mount Pulaski. “They’re buying us off, that’s the only way to say it, nice or not nice…they’ve bought the road district off, they’ve bought me off,” said Hilt. “I have to say I’m for it at this point.”
Tom Martin spoke next, saying that the people in Mt Pulaski that spoke out against the wind farm were worried about the speed of the project. Additionally, Martin said that Relight’s initial representatives “were not very good at their job and what they did.” Martin said a lot of people did not know anything about the wind farm before talks began.
Martin introduced a guest consultant named Gary Hickey. Hickey is an engineer from Forsyth with thirty-five years of engineering experience. Hickey mentioned several times that he believes there needs to be a sunset clause inserted in any agreement with Relight, just in case operations do not start within five years. Hickey said he is worried about the economics of wind energy, and that Relight may face difficult competition from other energy sources in the future.
Hickey also said he has concerns over the company behind the wind farm. Hickey said that he has not been able to find much a paper trail concerning Relight’s financial history. “There’s not a lot of transparency to Relight’s finances,” said Hickey. Also, Hickey pointed out that Relight did not use a third party for their noise study as part of this new application.
Woo responded to these points. Woo said the idea for a sunset clause is not a bad idea. However, as a private company, Woo said Relight is not obligated to disclose specific details about their company finances outside what has been shared so far, but he is willing to talk with his partners about sharing information. Woo also said the noise study used for their application was done by Relight using similar data from the first application (and applied to a wider area), and the original noise study was done by a third party.
Hickey also said he is worried about the lack of a solid decision on which turbine to use on the project. Because of these concerns, Hickey said he feels the application is incomplete.
Corey Leonard agreed that the application is incomplete. Leonard said that Relight should have included new studies on migratory birds in the area with their second application. Woo reiterated that a new study is not necessary because the data is the same and IDNR does not require it.
Chris Cowen spoke as well. Cowen reminded everyone that the Farm Bureau did not approve of Relight and the wind farm during the first application process. Cowen said he is still worried about the wind farm could interfere with various farming processes, such as application of pesticides and GPS signals used as part of various farming equipment.
At the end of the night, Thompson called an end to the hearing until the 8th of June, at which point the hearings will continue. A vote has not yet been taken on the application by the ZBA.
ZBA members present at the meeting were Doug Thompson, chairman; Judy Graff, Brett Farmer and Rick Sheley. Zoning Officer Will D’Andrea was also present.
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