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Developer seeks extension of special-use permit for wind farm

GIBSON CITY – The developers of a proposed wind farm in the Gibson City and Sibley areas in western Ford County are seeking to extend a special-use permit for the project that is due to expire next month.

Apex Clean Energy, based in Charlottesville, Va., is requesting a three-year extension of its special-use permit for the Ford Ridge Wind Farm, senior development manager Erin Baker said.

If granted by the Ford County Zoning Board of Appeals, the permit for 67 turbines near Gibson City and Sibley would be extended to Nov. 2, 2021.

The permit was originally acquired on Nov. 2, 2009, by Houston-based BP Alternative Energy, which later sold the project. In the years to follow, the original three-year permit was extended twice, by three more years each time, with the last extension due to expire on Nov. 2, 2018.

The zoning board of appeals was scheduled to meet Wednesday night to consider Apex Clean Energy’s request for the permit to be extended a third time. However, the meeting was suddenly canceled.

The county’s zoning enforcement officer, Matt Rock, did not immediately return calls Thursday seeking clarification on why the meeting was canceled and if another meeting would be scheduled.

An extension of the special-use permit would give Apex Clean Energy three more years to apply for construction permits, which require payment of $5,000 per turbine, since a developer can only acquire building permits prior to a special-use permit’s expiration.

Although the existing permit is for 67 turbines, Apex Clean Energy has indicated it plans to eventually alter the scope of its project, meaning another special-use permit may need to be acquired.

However, if that ends up happening, the firm will need to wait until after the Ford County Board lifts a moratorium that has been in place since last fall on the permitting of any new wind farms. Also, the issuance of a new special-use permit may mean that Apex’s project would need to abide by new siting regulations currently being reviewed by the zoning board of appeals.

“We are currently considering and pursuing all options that would allow the project to move forward,” Baker said in an email to the Ford County Record. “Since the wind ordinance is currently being revised and significant increases to setback requirements from both occupied structures and property lines are being considered, it’s very difficult for us to say what project capacity or turbine model we may hope to achieve.”

When the wind farm will be built also remains unclear.

“Construction commencement is uncertain right now until our existing (special-use permit) extension is granted, the moratorium on new wind permits is lifted, and/or the wind ordinance is revised in such a way that doesn’t regulate out wind,” Baker said.

Once built, the Ford Ridge Wind Farm would bring in more than $31.3 million in property tax revenue to the Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley school district over the life of the project, according to a report completed by David Loomis, president of Strategic Economic Research LLC, a consulting firm specializing in economic-impact analysis of renewable-energy projects.

The wind farm would also bring in nearly $9.4 million in property tax revenue to the county, more than $8.3 million in property tax revenue to townships and between $1.5 million and $4.1 million in property tax revenue to community colleges, fire departments and libraries over the life of the project, according to Loomis.

In 2011, when the zoning board of appeals first granted a three-year extension of the special-use permit for the Ford Ridge Wind Farm, a BP Alternative Energy official said the extension was needed due to “transmission issues” that had arisen.

“The issue is regarding the actual transmission of the power itself,” the BP official said. “It’s an area that has some congestion.”

The project was later sold, with Apex eventually acquiring it a few years ago.

The delays in getting the wind farm built can be attributed to a number of factors, Baker said.

“Utility-scale wind development is complex with a number of milestones and market conditions that must align,” Baker said. “Regulatory certainty is one of the primary drivers of project schedule and success, and the county currently has a moratorium on new wind special-use permits. This moratorium was supposed to be temporary but has now lagged into a second year. The discussions surrounding potential wind ordinance revisions have so far demonstrated a concerning level of doubt whether Ford County will continue to be a business-friendly environment, and this type of uncertainty for any industry delays further investments. Apex Clean Energy bought this project as a priority asset in our portfolio only a few years ago, and we have the resources and experience to complete this project if the county regulations allow for it.”