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Large crowd expected at meeting about wind-farm rule revisions

PAXTON – Wind-energy opponents and supporters will have another chance to weigh in on proposed changes to Ford County’s ordinance regulating wind farms when the county’s planning commission meets next week at the courthouse in Paxton.

How much they will be able to say, however, may be limited.

The county’s zoning enforcement officer, Matt Rock, said Tuesday that how long the public will be permitted to speak at the meeting will be up to the commission’s chairman, Jerry Oyer of rural Gibson City. But with a larger-than-normal crowd expected, the meeting will likely require “a little more structure to it,” Rock said – so he probably will suggest that Oyer institute a three-minute time limit for each person to speak.

“Obviously, you want to hear people out,” Rock said, “but I also don’t want people going on for 15 or 20 minutes and then we have a six-hour meeting.

“But it’s (Oyer’s) call,” Rock noted.

Many people are expected to attend the commission’s meeting scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 6 – “maybe a little bit more than what we’ve had” attend meetings of the Ford County Board’s zoning committee in recent months to hash out the proposed changes to the ordinance, Rock said.

Among those expected to be in attendance are wind-energy opponents Ted Hartke and Cindy and Ann Ihrke, along with representatives of wind-farm developers Pattern Energy and Apex Clean Energy, Rock said. Also expected to attend are members of the Ford County Board.

The meeting is tentatively scheduled to be held in the courthouse’s first-floor courtroom, Rock said, but it may be moved to the larger, second-floor courtroom to accommodate a larger crowd, if necessary.

During the meeting, the commission will be tasked with reviewing the proposed ordinance changes – including a proposal to more than double the distance that wind turbines must be from homes – before voting on whether to recommend the changes be approved by the county’s zoning board of appeals, Rock said.

If the commission disagrees with aspects of the proposed ordinance, its members will have the option of making changes to it, or the commission can reject it completely, Rock noted. Whatever package of changes the commission recommends is what will advance to the zoning board, Rock said.

Like the commission, the zoning board could then choose to accept the ordinance as recommended by the commission, or it could instead make its own changes and send those back to the commission for its consideration, Rock said.

When both panels are done with their work, the full 12-member county board will then vote on whether to approve the revised ordinance. If the county board votes down the ordinance, it would be sent back to the zoning board and planning commission for further review, Rock said.

Rock said he heard from a county board member recently that some members of the planning commission do not support the county’s proposal to increase the existing 1,000-foot setback between wind turbines and “primary structures” – such as homes – to 2,250 feet, or four times a turbine’s tip height, whichever is greater.

Instead, some would like the setback to be less restrictive, perhaps closer to 1,500 feet – a distance that was rejected by the county board’s zoning committee earlier this summer, Rock said.

Rock said he expects much discussion on the setback issue.

“It’s a seven-member commission, so there should be a lot of opinions,” Rock said. “And most of the commissioners live in rural areas, so they should have pretty strong opinions on it.”

The setback issue was among the most contentious when the zoning committee met several times over the course of the past year to put together the package of proposed ordinance changes.

Some committee members – including Rock – wanted a larger setback between turbines and homes to help address potential issues such as shadow flicker, ice throws and low-frequency noise that can be caused by turbines, as well as ensure the safety of residents in the event a turbine breaks or catches fire, for example.

Other committee members, however, wanted a less-restrictive setback – one that would be in line with the recommendations of developers planning to build wind farms in the county.

When the zoning committee voted unanimously to recommend the package of ordinance changes earlier this month, Erin Baker, a senior development manager for Apex Clean Energy, appeared taken aback by the proposed 2,250-foot setback. Baker said her company had already spent $2.5 million developing the Ford Ridge Wind Farm, a proposed wind-energy project in western Ford County in the Gibson City and Sibley area. But whether the wind farm can move forward under the proposed changes remains to be seen.

“We’ll need to take a look,” Baker said. “We’ll have to do our due diligence.”

Rock said he was in the process Tuesday of mailing information about the proposed changes to members of the commission so they can review the information prior to next week’s meeting. In addition to Oyer, the commission is comprised of Tim Freehill of Roberts, Duane Hitchens of rural Piper City, Eric Thompson of Melvin, Russell Tjarks of Sibley, John E. Smith of Clarence and Todd Sommer of rural Foosland.

After the commission meets, Rock said he will schedule a meeting of the zoning board of appeals, whose members are Chairman Robert Link of Gibson City, Kirk Rock of rural Roberts, Ronald Moore of Gibson City, John Carson of rural Paxton and Edward Moritz of rural Cullom.