PAXTON – The disagreement over how close wind turbines should be allowed to homes in rural areas of Ford County was apparent by the attire worn by some people in the audience of last week’s Ford County Planning Commission meeting.
“Wind works for Ford County,” read the blue shirts worn by some in the packed second-floor courtroom at the Ford County Courthouse.
“(We love) wind too – at 3,250 feet from our property lines!!” read the yellow shirts worn by others.
The differences in opinion were apparent, as well, when those same people testified before the commission about a proposal to revise the county’s ordinance regulating wind farms. While the proposal includes a measure to more than double the distance that wind turbines must be from homes, the yellow-clad group insisted that the county’s plan was inadequate to protect the safety and health of its rural residents, while the people in blue shirts – many of whom were representatives of wind farm development firms – voiced the need for less-restrictive rules than had been proposed.
Others, meanwhile, just wanted to see an end to the debate.
“We’ve been reading about this in the paper for months. Let’s get this settled, or (wind farm developers) may just pack up and leave,” resident Richard Perkins said. “This is good income for the county and the schools. Let’s make a decision and get this over with.”
But after hearing nearly 2 1/2 hours of testimony from 28 members of the public, the seven-member commission was unprepared to make a decision. Instead of taking a vote on whether to recommend the proposal advance to the county’s zoning board of appeals, the commission adjourned its meeting to 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 27, at the courthouse, with plans to discuss the issue further at that time.
The commission has been tasked with reviewing a proposed ordinance drafted by the Ford County Board’s zoning committee that includes a 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.
Yet no one – neither opponents nor supporters of wind energy – voiced support for that specific proposed change during Thursday’s public hearing before the commission.
Instead, the three wind energy development firms that brought representatives to the meeting asked for a 1,500-foot setback from primary structures, or three times a turbine’s tip height, whichever is greater. Some said the 2,250-foot setback would be too restrictive for owners of small parcels of land to lease their property for use by a wind farm, and such a setback would also not guarantee “better safety” of the non-participating residents.
Many of the yellow shirt-wearing rural residents in attendance also agreed that a 2,250-foot setback would not guarantee their safety, and they pushed for a 3,250-foot setback instead – and from property lines, not homes. They presented evidence showing that anything less than that distance could leave them at risk of the adverse health effects from the noise and shadow flicker wind turbines can create, as well as prevent them from using all of their land without fear of ice throws or blade throws from failed turbines.
1,500-foot setback urged
Michael Cressner, lead developer for Orion Renewable Energy Group, said his firm has been developing the proposed Elliott Wind Farm and already operates one in Marshall County. While advocating for a 1,500-foot setback as a “compromise,” Cressner noted that the Marshall County wind farm has seen “zero complaints” despite the county requiring only a 1,000-foot setback.
“More does not guarantee more safety,” Cressner said. “A 2,250-foot setback is not going to guarantee any better safety, any fewer complaints, but what it will guarantee is that the small landowners who have signed (leases) with us and do want to participate (in the Elliott Wind Farm) will not have that opportunity to participate because they will be ‘setback’ out from basically participating in the wind farm.”
Also pushing for a 1,500-foot setback was James Madson, representing Pattern Development, a firm that is developing the proposed Heritage Prairie Wind Farm in the Roberts and Piper City area. Madson said a 1,500-foot setback would be “very standard” or even “above standard” when compared with the regulations of most other counties in Illinois or the Midwest.
Jaclyn Friedley, representing Apex Clean Energy, said a 1,500-foot setback would “more than compensate for the health and safety (of residents) while also telling others that Ford County’s open for business.” Apex is developing the proposed Ford Ridge Wind Farm in the Gibson City and Sibley area.
Apex’s Erin Baker noted that a 2,250-foot setback would be “so restrictive that it is exceeded only by one other openly anti-wind county in Illinois.” Baker said such a setback would “send a clear message that Ford County is not a place to do business.”
Like Friedley, Baker urged for a 1,500-foot setback, which she said would be “above and beyond what’s necessary for safety and comfort” and would “not be so restrictive that wind developers just have no where to build.”
3,250-foot setback urged
Several residents of rural areas argued for a 3,250-foot setback – from property lines, not homes – as a way to protect their health, safety and ability to safely use their land – all of their land.
Ted Hartke, a licensed engineer and professional land surveyor who said he evacuated his Vermilion County home as a result of the noise caused by a wind turbine nearby, presented documented evidence that showed anything less than a 3,250-foot setback would put residents at risk.
Hartke cited the findings of Dr. Paul D. Schomer, who has said that to ensure the health of residents, a wind turbine’s noise levels should be less than 39 “A-weighted” decibels (dBA).
“At 40 dBA, the U.S. EPA recognizes that that’s where adverse health effects begin,” Hartke added.
Meanwhile, Hartke said he believes the 650-foot-tall wind turbines being proposed in Ford County could emit a dBA of 45 or more.
A study done by Schomer on the noise levels of a Livingston County wind farm’s 500-foot-tall turbines, Hartke noted, determined that two of the 220 homes in the wind farm’s footprint still remained “unprotected” from potential adverse health effects at a distance of 3,250 feet from a turbine.
Hartke also noted that a 3,250-foot setback from property lines would address concerns about blade throws and shadow flicker. Hartke said evidence shows there is still a possibility of a turbine blade entering a non-participating property owner’s land at that distance, but the chance is much lower than it would be with a 1,500-foot setback from homes. Hartke noted that on May 4, 2018, a turbine in the U.S. tossed pieces of one of its blades 1,837 feet.
Hartke said a 1,500-foot setback from homes – or 2,250-foot setback, for that matter – would allow for encroachment issues, as non-participating landowners would be limited on the use of their land because some of it would be in the so-called “hazard zone.”
“I think my children should be able to play in our yard – if I own five acres or 20 – and hang out at the creek at the back of our property and not be in this hazard area,” Hartke said.
“I think that everybody owns all of their land. If you want turbines, that’s great. Jam them in – as many as you can fit. But the place where you stop owning is your property line. If that noise, if that flicker and those property-value loss effects cross the property line, now you’ve gone too far.
“There’s a dollar sign on everything, including your health, including your kids, like it or not.”
Hartke added that Apex offers so-called “good neighbor agreements” to non-participating property owners within a half-mile of proposed wind turbines. Through the agreements, landowners agree not to complain about such issues as noise or shadow flicker in return for receiving payments.
“If they have a half-mile setback self-imposed, I think it ought to be a half-mile, guys. Why wouldn’t it be?” Hartke asked the planning commission.
Rural Buckley resident Ann Ihrke reminded the commission of its responsibilities and purpose. When considering a special-use permit for a development, she said, the commission is responsible for making sure the development will not “endanger the public health, safety, morale, comfort or general welfare” of residents. A permitted project also must not be “injurious to the use and enjoyment of other properties in the immediate vicinity (of the planned project) for the purposes already permitted, nor substantially diminish and impair the property values within the neighborhood,” she added.
“It further states that the establishment of the conditional-use (permit) will not impede the normal and orderly development and improvement of surrounding property for uses permitted,” she said.
“Your job then, gentlemen, is to follow the intent and purposes of your committee,” Ann Ihrke told commissioners. “Therefore, in order to protect persons from losing the use of their home property because of safety and health concerns, you must make setbacks be in line with all recent literature – 3,250 feet from a property line, not a structure. At this distance, only 10 percent of people will have problems sleeping in their homes, and their entire property will be outside of any danger zone for failing turbines and they will have full use of their property.
“It is not your job to find revenue for the county. It is not your job to support wind turbine companies. It is your job – and your only job – to make sure that you are following the purposes of the planning commission.”
Mike Hankard, an acoustical engineer whose job it is to measure wind turbines’ noise levels, attempted to refute Hartke’s testimony about Schomer’s findings.
While Schomer is advocating for a noise limit of 39 dBA, Hankard noted that “he doesn’t base that on any studies … that were conducted in Illinois.”
“He kind of did some broad-brush (studies), drew a line through some European standards, and looked at a few other things,” Hankard said, “and that’s how he came up with this 39 (as a recommendation).”
Hankard noted that “a majority” of wind turbines nationwide have been permitted at noise levels of 50 dBA – just a bit above the maximum noise levels allowed for turbines in Illinois under standards set by the Illinois Pollution Control Board (IPCB). Ford County’s wind-farm ordinance currently uses the IPCB’s standards for its noise limits.
“In that sense, in my opinion, (the Illinois Pollution Control Board’s standards) are an adequate protection,” Hankard said.
Taller turbines eyed
Besides stricter setbacks, the proposed revised wind-farm ordinance includes a measure to allow turbines to be as tall as 650 feet, up from 500.
Madson said the taller turbines would allow the capturing of higher-speed winds and make wind farms “more efficient and productive.” Taller turbines also would mean fewer of them would need to be built, since they would have a larger generating capacity.
Ford County Board member Tom McQuinn of rural Paxton noted that not all 12 county board members agree with the proposed setbacks and turbine height limitation – partly because of the unknown.
“There are no towers that high in the United States, so how do you compare the problems we’re going to have?” McQuinn said. “We really didn’t want Ford County to be the first to find out.
“We don’t know what noise there’s going to be,” he continued. “No one can really say, because, like I said, there aren’t any (that tall).”
McQuinn said there is no unanimous consensus on the setback issue among board members, either. Some want a larger setback to prevent issues that have been experienced in existing wind farms in the county, while others want a smaller setback to allow for more wind farms to come to the county.
“The 2,250 feet was the last compromise (the county board’s zoning committee) agreed on,” McQuinn said. “There are still those who don’t think that’s enough.”
Resident Merle McCallister said he thinks county officials should base their decision on “documented facts, not upon emotion.” Once the planning commission and zoning board of appeals have made a recommendation on how to move forward with the proposed revised wind-energy ordinance, the full county board will vote on whether to approve it.
“There is no easy decision, and no matter what you decide, somebody’s going to be grumpy about it,” McCallister said. “So it’s a matter of risk and reward. I can guarantee you that everybody who came to this meeting today got in their car in spite of the fact that thousands of people are killed every day in car accidents.”
The superintendents of the Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley and Tri-Point school districts echoed that sentiment.
“When consensus cannot be met, our job (as government) is to make determinations on what we feel has the best impact on the largest majority of our citizenry,” GCMS Superintendent Jeremy Darnell said.
“There are outliers on both sides of this,” added Tri-Point Superintendent Jeff Bryan. “Policy needs to be tailored to the majority.”
Financial benefits touted
Darnell and Hankard told the commission how wind farms give their districts a financial boost through an influx of property tax revenue.
Darnell said the Ford Ridge Wind Farm would generate $1.5 million in new tax revenue for GCMS schools immediately.
That was the same amount Tri-Point schools received in tax revenue this year from the recently built Kelly Creek Wind Farm in northern Ford County, Bryan said.
“It’s been a godsend for us,” Bryan said, noting the additional money allowed the district to not only avoid staff cuts but give pay raises for the first time in quite some time.
Also touting the economic benefits of wind farms was David Loomis, a professor of economics at Illinois State University and co-founder of the Center for Renewable Energy there. Loomis also is president of Strategic Economic Research LLC, a consulting firm specializing in economic-impact analysis of renewable-energy projects.
Loomis said his firm did a study for Pattern Energy regarding the economic effects of its proposed Heritage Prairie Wind Farm, which found that Ford County would receive $381,784 in the wind farm’s first tax year and $7.6 million total over the next 30 years.
The four townships in the wind farm’s footprint – Brenton, Lyman, Pella and Wall —would get more than $7 million combined, with Brenton receiving the most, at $3.6 million, over the wind farm’s 30-year lifespan. In the wind farm’s first tax year, the new tax money to the townships would range from $181,300 (Brenton) to $27,594 (Pella).
Three school districts – Tri-Point, Paxton-Buckley-Loda and Iroquois West – would get $804,944, $867,697 and $152,729, respectively, in the wind farm’s first tax year, Loomis said, and $16 million, $17 million and $3 million in total.
The wind farm also would create 417 jobs during construction and 32 long-term jobs in Ford County, Loomis said.