A bill has been signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner that shifts regulatory control over wind farm projects from counties to the state.
The passage of Illinois House Bill 3523 creates the Wind Energy Facilities Construction and Deconstruction Act. It was signed into law July 24, and is effective immediately.
The bill was an initiative of Illinois Farm Bureau, which wanted at least minimum standards in place statewide to bring consistency to the regulation of siting, building and removing commercial wind turbines.
A key element dictates that an agriculture impact mitigation agreement between developers and the agriculture department must be in place before a project can proceed locally.
Farm Bureau said the agreement isn’t necessarily all-encompassing, but it does streamline minimum protections for landowners.
“This just sets minimum standards for setup and decommissioning, and puts financial protections in place for landowners,” said Bill Bodine, associate director of state legislation for Illinois Farm Bureau.
The agreements will address such property restoration issues as compaction of soil, and drain tile systems.
“The counties can have more restrictive standards, and landowners can negotiate something beyond what’s in the agreement, but this brings some consistency to widely varying county regulations,” Bodine said.
Farm Bureau said the law doesn’t reinvent the wheel – similar agriculture agreements are already used for other energy projects such as pipeline transmission.
Conforming changes provisions dictate that state law will trump parts of county and city code regarding wind farms.
Although the new law doesn’t apply to wind farms already built or permitted, it will affect projects planned in the area. The law includes projects seeking an extension or renewal of its special use permitting with local government bodies.
The permitting on Geronimo Energy’s multi-county Green River wind project is set to expire Aug. 26 in Whiteside County. County officials were ready to get started on a permitting extension with Geronimo.
“We talked to the company last week, and we were hoping to start working on this next week sometime,” said Stu Richter, planning and zoning administrator in Whiteside County.
Richter fears that an already slow process could get bogged down even further with the state government’s involvement.
“What this means is that even if the County Board gets a recommendation for an extension, we couldn’t approve it until a mitigation plan is approved by the state agriculture department,” Richter said.
The special-use permitting also must be renewed by Bureau County for the Walnut Ridge project, which was acquired from Geronimo earlier this year by BHE Renewables.
Bureau County has scheduled a public hearing for Monday. Local officials are still digesting the new law, but the mitigation agreements must be in place before permits are issued at the local level.
“It’s my understanding that we can continue with plans for the hearings, but we can’t render a recommendation for the county board to consider until the agreement with the state is in place,” said Kristine Donarski, zoning administrator in Bureau County.
Donarski said she has qualms about relinquishing regulatory control to the state.
“We are still looking at how this law will affect us, but generally speaking, this type of regulation is better done at the local level,” Donarski said.
John Thompson, president of Lee County Industrial Development Association, said the law eventually could smooth over the regulatory process, but in the short term it will back up local project development.
“I’ve seen this with the enterprise zone legislation – the law is passed, and then they start writing the rules,” Thompson said.
He believes the state versus local control conversation is different for varying types of regulation, and the answers aren’t simple.
“I think most people can agree we need reasonable regulations implemented at a reasonable level, but everybody has different definitions of what that is,” Thompson said.
Geronimo recently confirmed plans to begin construction on the Green River project in spring 2016, and have it completed by the end of the year.
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