Ted Hartke doesn’t want any of his neighbors to go through what he did.
The Sidney resident and his wife, Jessica, had to abandon their home in Vermilion County because of noise pollution from nearby wind turbines.
“They were so noisy, we had severe sleep deprivation,” Hartke said.
The Hartkes left their home and lived in a double-wide trailer until they could afford to buy another house near Sidney. They paid two mortgages until they finally sold their old home.
“It was a pretty big loss,” Hartke said.
He plans to make a presentation to the Champaign County Zoning Board of Appeals at its meeting today to discuss changes to the zoning ordinance meant to address solar farms.
Hartke went to the Champaign County Environmental Land Use Committee’s last meeting to talk about his concerns with German-owned BayWa R.E.’s proposed 1,250-acre solar farm just south and southeast of Sidney.
He became interested when he found out the county is trying to develop requirements for solar farms. One of the model solar ordinances being considered proposes a noise limit of 60 decibels; the house he abandoned had a noise level of 45 decibels.
“It really needs to be a maximum noise limit of 39 (decibels),” Hartke said. “I’d hate for buzzing or humming noises to be in my yard all day.”
In addition to the noise issue, Hartke is concerned about rural developments that encroach upon farmland. He noted that the county limits the maximum size of a lot to 3 acres for residents. The proposed wind farm would be about 417 times that large.
“You’re in an area for best prime farmland,” Hartke said. “I think that’s very inappropriate. I see urban sprawl and think, ‘What a waste of good topsoil.'”
Hartke, who grew up on a farm, concedes that farmers are becoming more efficient with less land, producing more bushels per acre now than in the past.
“But it’s still a resource that’s hard to get back,” he said.
Hartke said that land would be taken out of production for the term of the lease, typically 20 years. At that point, he’s concerned about taxpayers having to foot the bill to remove the solar panels.
Part of the 150-megawatt solar farm would be within Sidney’s 1.5-mile extraterritorial jurisdiction. Sidney President Chuck White said at the last village board meeting that the Champaign County Zoning Board of Appeals would be the one to approve the special use permit application for the solar farm, however.
“Before they get everything finalized, we’ll try to have a public meeting on it, probably a month down the road,” White said.
Hartke would like to see the village exercise any power it can over its extraterritorial jurisdiction.
For example, he said, the village of Rankin banned commercial wind turbines within 1.5 miles of its corporate limits.
‘Is it just monetary?’
Colleen Ruhter would be more directly affected by the solar farm – her farm is just across the road. She fears the 7-foot fences on either side of her road would create a tunnel effect that she and her husband were not expecting when they moved to the country four years ago.
“It’s not going to be the same,” she said. “My 4-year-old is obsessed with watching the sunsets. With the fence across from me, we won’t be able to see it anymore.”
Ruhter is also concerned about the potential loss of property value. She and her husband have put money in their house, land, trees and landscaping, and now she wonders if they will even stay there.
“I envisioned this as the place where my kids would come home from college,” she said.
Ruhter and her husband have just established an LLC for their farm, where they raise pastured chicken and grass-fed pork. They called it That Little Farm in the Country, a name that may no longer apply if the area loses its rural characteristics.
“We’ve been trying to get our farm going to where it isn’t just a hobby farm,” she said. “I’d be interested to see what the county sees as positives, especially for the residents who don’t have land leases. Is it just monetary?”
Ruhter, a civil engineer with an environmental engineering background, is in favor of solar power and believes in protecting the environment. Her opposition to the proposal is the scale on which it’s being done.
“You’ve got to consider how it’s going to impact local people’s way of life,” Ruhter said.
Two companies interested
John Hall, Champaign County’s director of planning and zoning, said about 20 companies have expressed interest in starting solar farms in the county. Thus far, the only ones that have submitted special use permit applications are BayWa R.E. and Maryland-based Community Power Group, which is proposing 20-acre, 2-megawatt solar farms north of St. Joseph and northwest of Rantoul in Ludlow Township.
Hall said part of what the zoning board will consider is a decommissioning plan in the event that a company would go bankrupt or abandon a solar farm for any other reason. Companies would have to meet all of the same environmental standards as a wind farm. Other aspects being considered include road use agreements in which the company would agree to repair any damage caused by excessive wear and tear on the roads. The company would also have to have screening if within 1,000 feet of any dwelling.
Hall said Sidney officials have to sign off on the solar farm since part of it is within the village’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, and at one point, it actually touches the village.
“We require some sort of documentation,” he said.
The county zoning board has tentatively scheduled a public hearing on the Sidney solar farm for June 28. However, that date is dependent on whether the amendments to the zoning ordinance are completed by the end of May.
BayWa R.E. did not respond to attempts to contact the company.
Christine Walsh is editor of The County Star, a News-Gazette Media community newspaper. For more, visit county-star.com.