LINCOLN – On Thursday, May 4, 2017, a public hearing to consider amendments to the conditional use requests for the Hilltopper Wind Farm recently bought by Swift Current Energy. Logan County Zoning Board of Appeals hosted the meeting held at Mount Pulaski Christian Church.
Over 100 people came to hear about the amendments and updates on the project. Zoning Board of Appeals members present were Cheryl Baker, Judy Graff, Brett Farmer, Doug Thompson, Rick Sheley, Derek Martin, and Scott Noltensmeier.
Zoning Board of Appeals chairman Doug Thompson said the ZBA was considering two matters. He said, “the first one is an amendment to the conditional use permit that was approved in 2015.”
Thompson said, “The conditions that were approved at that meeting would pretty much stand except for a few changes in the way things are planned and some of the ordinance that has changed since then.” He said, “We also have a variance that will be considered along with that conditional use amendment.”
Thompson said, “There is a separate conditional use that will be considered which is a new conditional use and that involves the addition of some new properties to the wind farm project.”
ZBA member Judy Graff read the notice for the hearing, which said that the application from Swift Current Energy asked for “a modification of its existing Conditional Use Permit and a Variance for a certain parcel.”
The notice also said proposed changes would “allow the construction and operation of a wind energy conversion system (wind farm) in the Agricultural District by including additional parcels to its existing, permitted wind farm.” This wind farm “consists of meteorological towers, wind turbines, collector lines, substations, transmission lines, access roads and related appurtenances.”
Explanation of project changes and updates
Kyle Barry, an attorney for the wind farm project, explained some of the changes.
Barry said that in December, Swift Current Energy, a renewable energy company based in Boston, Mass. acquired the Meridian Wind Farm Project and renamed it Hilltopper Wind.
Barry said the original permit “is still active and still exists and can be activated to build the wind project.” He said, “We are here because the applicant has filed an application to amend the existing permit to make changes to the turbine layout within the existing footprint, to reduce the number of wind turbines, and to remove some parcels.”
Barry said, “the other reason we are here tonight is because the applicants filed another permit application to add new parcels to the project and that’s based on the interest and cooperation it has received from new landowners in the area.”
Barry said the new parcels would “reduce the impact on the community by allowing to move the footprint of the project away from Mount Pulaski and will improve the efficiencies of the way it will operate.”
Barry said, “The applicant also seeks a zoning variance for the application of the noise rules to a single parcel. There’s slight projected violation of the noise rules.” He said the landowner “has consented to the variance.”
Barry said, “we are here to ask the board to make three votes. One to amend the existing permit to move the pieces around on the chessboard. A second vote to add new parcels to the project to improve the layout of the project and the impact on the community.” He said they wanted to “reduce the turbines from 81 to 74.” Barry said, the last vote would be on the sound variance to the one parcel.
Barry said the company signed an Agricultural Impact Mitigation Agreement with the Illinois Department of Agriculture on April 27 and it “provides additional protections to landowners for things like repairing drainage tiles.”
Barry said the Regional Planning Commission voted unanimously on Wednesday to recommend approval of the applications, and asked the ZBA to “make a similar recommendation to the county board.”
Matt Birchby of Swift Current Energy then provided an overview of the project as he showed and discussed several slides. Birchby and William Kelsey are project leads.
Birchby said Swift Current Energy was founded in summer 2016, but team members have a combined 80 years of experience with renewable energy having developed and operated 67 power projects in 21 states. They are doing another project in Mason County.
Birchby said the company “feels strongly about fitting in and blending into the communities” and the thought that “this is farmland” is one that is “foremost” to them. He said the company has opened an office in Lincoln and will also use the Bo-Jac office [near Mount Pulaski] for its operation and management building.
Birchby described key changes to the project. The site will be moved two miles from Mount Pulaski instead of the one mile in the original permit. The acreage it is spread over has decreased from 9,500 acres to 7,500 acres.
Birchby said the transmission line distance has gone from 5.7 miles down to 4 miles. It will now “start at the south side of Route 54 and come up shorter without having to cross” existing lines.
Birchby said the turbines are being reduced from 81 to 74, which “will be more efficient and less impactful” and “will improve the placement relative to local residences and other structures around the project area.” He said ten turbines will now be in an area where the “population is less dense.”
Birchby said the turbine size with a 492.1 foot tip height has not changed. He said they use “steel monopoles” to “limit impacts to farming operations.” Birchby said “unless requested otherwise by a landowner,” poles would be placed “about 25 feet from a property line or public road.”
Birchby said an average 1,900-foot-setback from homes more than complies with the county ordinance that requires a 1,000-foot-setback. They try to make it the least impactful.
Birchby said setbacks from other structures and boundaries must be 1.1 times the height of the turbine when the site is near public roads, transmission lines, communication towers, pipelines or pipeline utilities, and property line of non-participating landowners. For a 492-foot-tall turbine the setback would have to be at least 542 feet.
Birchby shared project economics and said the project is a $300 million investment. He said the average property tax payment the project will be making annually is $1.5 million. The total payment to participating landowners will be around $25 million, and for non-participating landowners, the payments will be around $4 million dollars over the project life.
Birchby said as they apply for the building permit, it is $1.00 per turbine height, which will be about $720,000.
Birchby said they will pay “prevailing wages during construction” and will have “eight to nine full-time employees.”
Birchby said they have “committed to make $560,000 in community benefit payments each year over the life” of the project. He said additional local business revenues and taxes will be generated as a result of the project construction and operation in the area.
Birchby said “We are very sensitive to construction timing,” but “to ensure safety in terms of turbine erection” we need “tranquil weather conditions.” He said, we may need to take advantage of “still nights” and request the ability to erect turbines at night as necessary.
Testimonies from expert witnesses
Barry presented expert witnesses to address wildlife issues, noise levels, and property values.
Wildlife biologist Travis Brown reviewed wildlife studies for the project and presented results. Brown said he reviewed the past studies and did an updated raptor nest survey. He talked to the Illinois Fish and Wildlife Service and Department of Natural Resources to make sure they were “comfortable with the conclusions of past reports” and “the level of risk to wildlife at the project.”
Brown said he talked to the agencies about “adaptive management strategies to address any potential risks” to “eagles and bats.” He did a research proposal to test a technology that keeps bats away from turbines. Brown said the agencies are happy with the strategies and the deterrent to bats.
Noise study expert Stephanie Van Kempen works in the wind industry for AWS True Power. She has consulted with many wind resource projects doing sound analyses and evaluating noise issues. Van Kempen is familiar with the Illinois Pollution Control Board’s regulations on noise and said they limit noise levels at night.
Van Kempen said she used AWS open wind software to do a noise study and measure “octave bound sound levels.” She tested the GE 2.5 116 turbine the project may use and found decibel levels to be in compliance with noise regulations. Van Kempen said she feels the Hilltopper project meets the ordinance and IPCB requirements.
Peter Poletti of Poletti and Associates Incorporated, a real estate appraisal consulting firm performed a real estate impact study for the Hilltopper project. Poletti said his study “no statistically measurable difference between homes located near an operating wind farm and those located some distance from an operating wind farm” and saw “no negative impacts on property values.”
Questions from ZBA members
ZBA member Judy Graff asked Poletti about comparables for property values which were from 2009. She said there are a lot of differences in property values now.
Poletti said data from 2009 is the best he can do. He said one house built near towers after a wind farm was constructed in Mendota sold at a price close to the value of nearby property.
ZBA member Scott Noltensmeier asked about effects on property taxes.
Poletti said property taxes are up to school board districts. He said money from wind farms can help offset taxes and some townships may even lower tax rates. It depends on each tax district.
ZBA Chairman Doug Thompson asked how the 1,950-foot-setback was applied.
Rob Macintosh of the Farnsworth group said he looked at the center of the turbine and averaged the closest setbacks.
ZBA member asked about possible Federal Aviation Administration “hazards.”
Birchby said they work with the Capital Airspace Group and determined “no hazards from the FAA” and new determinations are also positive for airspace and airway routes.
ZBA member Cheryl Baker asked about the [parcel with the] exception for the noise level, whether “the exception would go with the sale like an easement” if the house is sold?
Birchby said the land lease “effectively runs” with the land.”
Thompson asked for public comments and questions about the application. Several residents expressed concerns.
Mount Pulaski resident Corey Leonard said he is concerned about work being done at night because of the noise and its effect on sleep. He asked the board to have a dawn to dusk condition and wanted “low operation at night” to be left in.
Thompson said he thought they could make changes that would meet noise standards.
Birchby said it can be run in noise reduction mode. He said nighttime work would not entail trucks running or any other real construction. It would just be turbine erection.
Kelsey said they would just be “stacking up the turbine at night” and it is sometimes safer then.
Mount Pulaski resident David Trainer asked Poletti how many wind farms he has worked with and how they have affected property values.
Poletti said he has worked with around 15 wind farms and found no effects on property values looking at statistics and comparisons. He looks at the overall market and various reasons people do not buy a house.
Rick Volle, President of Farmer’s Bank in Mount Pulaski, said he is concerned about the “potential impact on property values” and how a ten, twenty, or thirty percent reduction in the value of real estate could negatively affect banks. He would like to hear more recent data than those from 2009.
Dr. Mike Nichols, a non-participating homeowner in the footprint, said he has been trying to sell his house because of his wife’s hyper-sensitivity to sound. He asked about the payments per turbine and if the annual money given to the homeowner could be passed on to the next homeowner.
Birchy said homeowners get $250 per year for “each turbine within 3,000 feet from an occupied residence” and the payment would continue with new homeowners.
Mount Pulaski resident Rick Cannon said he will now have more turbines closer his house and is concerned about shadow flicker and noise. He had talked to people from Danville who had to move due to those issues and took a loss on the real estate value. Cannon asked the ZBA to turn down the amendments.
Mount Pulaski resident Gena Monical Ruhl said that with the changes, there would be more turbines closer to her. Monical Ruhl has concerns about infrasound and negative health impacts. She said a new functional MRI has been developed that “shows blood flow in the brain” and “can measure the effects of infrasound.” Monical Ruhl asked the ZBA to help protect her family and community by voting no.
Brian Erlenbush asked if they could do the construction without the variance and whether agreements would carry over if the project was sold.
Birchby said they could do the work without the variance and agreements do carry over just like they did when Swift took over the project from Meridian.
Elkhart resident Kelby Ford asked how much of the money funding the project are tax subsidies and how much is from private monies?
Birchby said no “public dollars” fund the construction. It is 100 percent “private investment.” He said the project would receive tax credits when the facility is in operation.
Logan county resident Dennis Minick, the business manager of operating engineers, said these projects pay good wages and have good benefits. He spoke in support of the project.
Dan Rutledge, a principal with the Farnsworth group who has worked with wind farms said wind farm teams reinforce public roads and are good stewards of the community. He is in full support and finds it a benefit to the community.
Barry said he believes the applications comply with the provisions for conditional use and section 10.3 of the zoning code. He thanked the ZBA for evaluating the material and asked for a favorable vote on the applications and variance.
ZBA discusses and approves amendments
Thompson asked ZBA members to consider the conditions such as the erection of towers at night.
Martin and Noltensmeier both thought working sunrise to sunset was better.
Baker said she lives near the Railsplitter Wind Farm and could not hear them working at night.
Sheley’s motion to allow Swift Current Energy to erect towers at night passed 5-2 with Cheryl Baker, Judy Graff, Brett Farmer, Doug Thompson, and Rick Sheley voting yes. Derek Martin and Scott Noltensmeier voted no.
Thompson asked about the wind tower speed running in noise reduction as needed.
Birchby said running in noise reduction mode would comply with both the county ordinance and the Illinois Pollution Control Board.
Thompson reviewed the conditions such as the reduced number of turbines, the setbacks, the move away from Mount Pulaski, the bat deterrents, the real estate studies, the sundown condition of five years. He said they should all be considered.
Logan County Zoning Officer Will D’Andrea also gave them a handout with his review of setbacks and waivers needed for compliance.
Brett Farmer made a motion to amend the conditional use permit originally approved and approve the variance request for the noise and listed conditions. This motion passed 5-2 with Cheryl Baker, Judy Graff, Brett Farmer, Doug Thompson, and Rick Sheley voting yes. Derek Martin and Scott Noltensmeier voted no.
The ZBA then considered whether to add new towers and new parcels.
Rick Sheley’s motion to approve the conditional use permit request with conditions added passed 6-1 with Cheryl Baker, Judy Graff, Brett Farmer, Scott Noltensmeier, Doug Thompson, and Rick Sheley voting yes. Derek Martin voted no.
The matter will go before the Logan County Board next. The board meets in Workshop on Thursday, May 11 and votes in Regular session on Tuesday, May 16.
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