PAXTON – The Ford County Board’s zoning committee made some slight progress in its efforts to revise the county’s ordinance regulating wind farms Monday, but there remains work to be done before the document is ready to advance to the county’s zoning board of appeals and planning commission.
During a two-hour meeting Monday at the Ford County Courthouse, the five-member committee came to a consensus on one issue: raising the minimum blade clearance – the distance between the tip of a wind turbine’s blade and the ground – from the existing 15-foot requirement to 50 feet.
However, contention persists on setbacks – the minimum distance that turbines can be located from existing structures, property lines, transmission lines and public roads.
The committee also continues to hash out the preferred way to address noise levels for wind turbines, as well as decommissioning requirements by which a wind-farm operator would need to abide in the case a wind farm shuts down and its turbines need removed.
The committee plans to meet again – although no date has been set yet – to continue its discussions, which began last year after residents of the Kempton area complained about television reception interference caused by a wind farm in northern Ford County.
In advance of the next meeting, the county’s zoning enforcement officer, Matt Rock, said he would put together a document listing the various options that committee members suggested regarding changes to setbacks, decommissioning and noise limits, with the hopes that a consensus on those unresolved issues can be made at that meeting.
Once the committee is done with its work, the recommended changes will be advanced to the zoning board and planning commission for their consideration, and then the full county board will need to vote on the revised ordinance. Once the ordinance is approved by the full board, the board is expected to lift a moratorium on the granting of special-use permits for wind farms that has been in effect since last October.
Monday’s meeting began with several people urging the board to strengthen the ordinance to protect the county as well as “non-participating property owners” – those residents who are not leasing their land to a wind-farm operator but live near turbines.
Cindy Ihrke of rural Roberts said the revised ordinance should contain setbacks from homes that, at minimum, exceed the safety recommendations of two turbine manufacturers. For turbines smaller than 600 feet, Ihrke said, the two companies are instructing their employees to run “up-wind” at least 1,540 feet from a turbine in the event that turbine catches fire and the site needs to be evacuated.
Given that many homes of non-participating property owners are located “down-wind” from wind turbines, Ihrke suggested a 3,250-foot minimum setback between turbines and the property lines of non-participants. Ihrke noted that an attorney for a company operating a wind farm in Livingston County has said under oath that the wind farm could still have been built with 3,250-foot setbacks.
Meanwhile, Ihrke’s step-mother, Ann Ihrke of rural Buckley, advised the committee to “consider carefully” the estimates provided by wind-farm companies regarding the cost of decommissioning. She said she has found estimates that are two years old that show it costs between $100,000 and $125,000 per month for a crane to be used to remove turbines, and a demolition company has said that taking down just one turbine per week would be a “reasonable” expectation. It could cost a lot of money for a 100-turbine project to be decommissioned, she said, so the county’s decommissioning requirements need to protect the county from such responsibility.
Speaking next was Erin Baker, representing Apex Clean Energy. Baker’s firm has already been issued a special-use permit to build the proposed Ford Ridge Wind Farm near Sibley but wants to expand the project in the future, which would require the company to apply for another special-use permit.
Baker provided the board with a printout of some proposed changes to the ordinance that her company would find acceptable.
“We do think there are a number of ways in which the ordinance could be not only administratively cleaned up with some definitions but also a number of ways in which the ordinance could be made more restrictive – and in some ways quite a bit more restrictive – in a way that would not limit or prevent our developments from proceeding in the county,” Baker said.
Baker said setbacks could be made “more rigorous but still be in line with industry standards.” Baker suggested setbacks from “primary structures” – such as homes or garages – be at least 1,000 feet or at least twice the height of a turbine when measured to the tip of its blade, whichever distance is greater. She suggested that even if a landowner signs a waiver, the county can restrict turbines from ever being closer to 1,000 feet from a structure.
Baker also suggested a setback between turbines and property lines that would equal the distance of 1.1 times a turbine’s tip height. Baker said such a setback would mean that if a tower were to fall over, a nonparticipating property owner would not see “any sort of physical infringement on their property” as a result.
Baker also said she had no problem with the committee’s plans to have blade clearance increased from a minimum of 15 to 50 feet, noting that would be “definitely more responsible from a safety perspective.”
Meanwhile, Baker said she had no problem with the committee’s plan to issue hefty fines to wind-farm operators in the event they fail to remedy complaints regarding such issues as turbine noise, shadow flicker or television or Internet interference. She provided an outline of what she felt was a “good and very rigorous schedule for what the wind companies would be beholden to in the event of any complaint” and suggested that fines of up to $500 be issued each day a complaint goes unresolved beyond the period in which they are required to remedy it.
James Madson, representing Pattern Energy Group, concurred with Baker’s proposals. Regarding the committee’s plans to change decommissioning requirements, Madson said he had no problem with the county’s plans to require that each wind-farm operator provide cost estimates from at least two contractors for decommissioning of a wind farm more often than the currently required five years. Madson also said his company would have no problem with a proposal to require each wind-farm operator to provide a letter of credit as financial security for decommissioning costs.
“A letter of credit does not impose a significant challenge for Pattern,” Madson said.
Audience member Ted Hartke, who said he abandoned his home in Vermilion County due to noise issues caused by a wind farm nearby, asked the board to create new setbacks that would be large enough to protect non-participating landowners from unwanted, low-frequency emissions from turbines.
Hartke noted that noise can be a big problem, as he has experienced, and it is not something easy to remedy after it becomes a problem. Hartke said he and his neighbor spent $15,000 trying to measure noise levels at their homes. Hartke noted that even if a resident is able to prove the noise levels exceed Illinois Pollution Control Board (IPCB) limits, the IPCB cannot do anything to address the issue.
“Even if you caught the wind company exceeding their noise level, the only fallback people have is to file a complaint with the Illinois Pollution Control Board, but the IPCB does not do investigations; they do not have any staff; and if you go before them asking for a noise violation, they might give you this noise violation but you still can’t do anything with it,” Hartke said. “You are struck with a piece of paper that says they violated, but there’s no fine, no wind turbine shutdown, no correction instructions. And if they do it again, you have to prove it again and you have to have another noise study done. … That’s an expense that your citizens can’t and won’t afford.”
After the public comments, the committee discussed changing several aspects of the wind farm ordinance. The only consensus was on minimum blade clearance.
The committee discussed but made no decisions on:
➜ Maximum tower tip height, which currently is 500 feet. Committee member Tom McQuinn appeared against the idea of allowing even larger turbines, saying he was concerned that allowing them could simply cause more potential issues related to noise or shadow flicker, for example. The committee settled on two options: (1) keeping the tip height unchanged and (2) increasing it to 650 feet.
➜ Setbacks between turbines and primary structures, which are currently no less than 1,000 feet. Currently, the owner of a primary structure can waive the setback requirement, but in no case shall a tower be located closer to a primary structure than 1.1 times a turbine’s tip height (550 feet).
The committee’s chairman, Dave Hastings, said he thinks that under no scenario should the county allow a turbine closer than 1,000 feet from a structure. However, committee member Randy Ferguson said 1,000 feet is “way too close,” suggesting instead that 2,500 feet be a better distance.
Hastings noted that each square-mile in the county is 5,280 feet by 5,280 feet, meaning that a 2,500-foot setback requirement would limit one turbine per square-mile.
“I said that’s where I wanted to start,” Ferguson said, noting he would perhaps accept a shorter setback distance. “But I won’t settle for 1,000 (feet), period.
“I’m just trying to come up with a happy middle ground instead of getting too deep in the weeds – just something simple,” Ferguson added.
“That would eliminate a whole bunch of (the issues),” McQuinn said.
“Well, what it would do is it would eliminate wind projects,” Baker responded.
“Good idea,” Cindy Ihrke said.
Baker then said: “The compromise you’re suggesting is simple in the fact that it will simplistically drive our business elsewhere, because we will not be able to build to that standard.”
After discussion, the committee settled on two options: (1) keeping the setback unchanged and (2) increasing it to a minimum of 2,000 feet or 3.5 times a turbine’s tip height, whichever is larger. The committee also chose to restrict any turbine from being closer to a primary structure – even if a landowner signs a waiver – than either 1,000 feet or 1,300 feet, whichever the committee decides.
➜ The setback distance between turbines and the boundaries of platted communities, which currently is a minimum of 1,500 feet. The committee settled on two options: (1) keep the distance at 1,500 feet or (2) increase it to a minimum of 2,000 feet.
➜ The setback distance between a turbine and an adjacent property line, which currently is a minimum of 1.1 times the tower’s hub height. The committee discussed changing that setback to a minimum of 1.5 times the tower’s tip height, rather than hub height. Hastings disagreed with the proposal, however.
➜ The setback distance between a turbine and transmission lines, telephone lines and communication towers, which currently is a minimum of 1.1 times a turbine’s tip height. Ferguson said he was going to suggest changing it to 1.5 times a turbine’s tip height, but he would be OK with leaving it unchanged.
➜ The setback distance between turbines and public roads, which currently is a minimum of 1.1 times a turbine’s tip height. Committee members said leaving the wording unchanged may be OK.
➜ The setting of parameters for noise levels, which currently only need to comply with IPCB limits. Hastings suggested in a recent meeting that noise levels be limited to 35 dBA at night inside a residence located within 1,500 feet of a turbine, or 42 dBA during daytime hours. However, Hastings said he no longer wished to assign any limits.
“I suggested that, and as I thought about it, I’m not sure I know what 35 and 42 are, let alone how to measure them and measure them properly,” Hastings told his fellow committee members. “If somebody has a problem with the noise level, then let them work that out with the wind farm.”
Meanwhile, instead of simply requiring that a wind-farm operator take “reasonable steps” to address complaints regarding noise and other issues, the committee is looking at requiring the operator to respond to each complaint received and remedy each issue within 90 days, or face daily fines of up to $1,000 per unresolved complaint.
➜ Changes to the decommissioning requirements. In the past, Rock said most wind-farm operators have issued bonds as financial assurance to the county in the case a wind farm shuts down and needs to be removed. However, the committee has proposed requiring that at least half of the cost of decommissioning come in the form of an irrevocable letter of credit – which committee members said would be more secure and accessible to the county than a bond would be.
Also, no longer will the county allow a wind-farm operator to deduct turbines’ salvage value from the financial assurance it provides.
Before providing the financial assurance, wind-farm operators would also need to provide to the county at least two written estimates from reputable contractors regarding how much it would cost to decommission their wind farm.
Even after a wind farm is built, the operator would need to provide updated cost estimates for decommissioning of the wind farm every two years. Currently, updated estimates are required every five years.
Under the committee’s proposal, updated estimates could only be higher – not lower – than the estimate provided to the county prior to construction.
Also, in the event an entire wind farm or a portion of a wind farm shuts down, the county would give the wind-farm operator up to one year to decommission the affected portion of the project. Currently, there is no time limit.