PAXTON – Ford County Board member Tim Nuss lives on a small farmstead just outside the village of Roberts. Like other rural residents, Nuss enjoys having the full use of his property – all of his property.
But a proposal being drafted by Nuss’ colleagues on the county board threatens to limit what rural property owners like Nuss could do with their land if a wind farm were to be built nearby. The board’s zoning committee last Wednesday reviewed proposed revisions to the county’s ordinance regulating wind farms, and Nuss was not happy with one proposed change: allowing wind turbines to be as close as 1,500 feet from homes.
“I wouldn’t want one 1,500 feet from my house,” said Nuss, who is not a member of the committee but will have a say on the proposed changes when they come before the full county board. “That restricts anything I intend to do on my property. … I find it restrictive, and I think it’s wrong.”
Nuss is not alone.
A Ford County resident who did not state her name at the meeting called the 1,500-foot setback proposal “an insult to those of us living in the country.” The unidentified resident noted that the manufacturers of wind turbines don’t appear to think 1,500 feet is a safe distance either; she said they instruct their employees to stay out of a so-called “evacuation zone” of 1,640 feet around turbines in the event of a fire, for example.
Ted Hartke, a surveyor who said he evacuated his Vermilion County home due to noise issues caused by a turbine nearby, has repeatedly suggested that the committee adopt revised setbacks that reflect a distance of at least the “evacuation zones” recommended by turbine manufacturers.
Hartke presented a sketch to the committee last week showing how the 1,500-foot setback proposed by the committee would infringe upon a 33.6-acre property if turbines were sited on three of its four sides. The sketch shows that just 0.7 acres of land would remain out of the setback zone, leaving the property owner with the risk of blade throws or ice throws on the rest of it.
“You guys are just about ready to take away the use and enjoyment of 98 percent of this 33.6-acre parcel if you allow turbines within 1,500 feet of a house,” Hartke told the committee. “This guy who owns this land … owns all of his land, and he should be able to put a house on all of his land. … He should be able to use it.
“If you do this, this is taking away land without just compensation. This is adverse-possession zoning.”
Hartke then asked if two wind-energy companies with representatives in attendance – Pattern Energy and Apex Clean Energy – had provided the committee, as previously requested, with the safety manuals for the turbines they would be using for wind farms they intend to build in Ford County. The safety manuals would show the recommended evacuation zones for the model of turbine, Hartke said.
James Madson of Pattern Energy responded by saying he had already presented the safety manual to the committee.
Hartke then asked: “So what is the distance (for the evacuation zone)?”
“We’ve provided that information and gone over it multiple times,” Madson responded.
“Has anyone every seen that?” Hartke then asked the committee. “Have you guys ever seen what he says they’ve gone over multiple times – the turbine evacuation area? Have you seen that? And where’s (the safety manual) at? What’s the number?”
The committee had no response.
“What’s the number?” Hartke asked again. “Do you guys have blank stares or do you guys have facts?”
The committee’s chairman, Dave Hastings of Paxton, then finally said something.
“We have blank stares,” Hastings told Hartke “and that’s the end of your time (speaking). Thank you.”
Later in the meeting, Hartke was allowed to speak again. Hartke reiterated his view that turbines should not be allowed to be sited so close to homes that they can present a safety issue or cause noise pollution that disrupts residents’ sleep.
Hartke said the setback from primary structures such as homes needs to be at least 3,250 feet – the distance recommended by a doctor who testified under oath during a Livingston County zoning board meeting for a wind farm in that county.
“And the setbacks from property lines need to be at least the recommendations from the safety operations manual from turbine manufacturers,” Hartke said. “Anything less than that, you’re taking away the safety, health, welfare and enjoyment of all of someone’s piece of land.”
Hartke then addressed Pattern Energy’s Madson again, asking when he provided the safety manual to the committee as he said he did.
“In a previous zoning committee meeting,” Madson responded.
Madson later clarified that there is no recommended evacuation zone for the turbines his company uses.
Hartke then asked the committee to “get that certified in writing.”
The unidentified woman who addressed the committee earlier then asked why the committee could not just adopt a 3,250-foot setback from homes to resolve all concerns.
Hastings responded by saying the 1,500-foot setback the committee is recommending was arrived at as a “compromise.” Hastings noted that although some residents feel 1,500 feet is too close, the companies wanting to build wind farms in Ford County think that setbacks much greater than that would make the construction of a wind farm burdensome or even impossible.
“We’ve reviewed this about 15 different times, and we’ve tried to make a compromise between maintaining as much of a safety distance as we can and yet have the opportunity to build wind turbines in the county,” Hastings said. “We have reviewed this a number of times. I can’t apologize enough if it doesn’t meet your requirements, but we’ve reviewed it enough that we think it meets ours.”
Hastings noted that the committee does not want the setbacks to be too restrictive for wind farms to be built in the county because such projects are needed to help boost the county’s property tax base.
“The only source of income that we have in this county that we can see generally right now is the potential of putting up a wind farm,” Hastings said.
County board member Tom McQuinn of rural Paxton, who is not a member of the zoning committee but has attended most of the committee’s meetings to discuss the proposed ordinance revisions, noted that not all committee members or board members agree with the proposed 1,500-foot setback. McQuinn said he, too, feels 1,500 feet is “too close.”
Hastings, however, said 100 percent agreement is not going to happen.
“I think we’ve talked enough times that half of us are going to disagree with the ordinance and half of us are going to agree,” Hastings said. “We’re trying to do the best we can and compromise.”
Rural Roberts resident Cindy Ihrke had heard a similar statement before.
“I’m in the 50 percent that’s not happy,” Ihrke said.
Hastings said the proposed changes to the ordinance will be reviewed by State’s Attorney Andrew Killian before the committee meets one more time to vote on whether to recommend it advance to the zoning board of appeals and planning commission. Those two panels would then vote on whether to concur with the recommended changes before the full county board would take its own vote to approve the revised ordinance.
In a related matter, the committee voted 2-1, with Hastings in dissent and Gene May of Paxton and Randy Berger of Gibson City in favor, to change the fees charged to wind-farm companies for building permits issued for turbines. The proposed change will need to be voted on by the full board before it becomes official.
Upon May’s recommendation, the committee voted to recommend changing the fee from $5,000 per turbine to $10,000 per tower of 2 megawatts or less and $5,000 per turbine for each megawatt or part thereof in excess of 2 megawatts.
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