PAXTON – The Ford County Zoning Board of Appeals will consider proposed wind turbine setback increases on Thursday.
In a controversial move that one audience member said was done as a means of “stifling public comment,” the four-person panel voted at the end of last Thursday’s public hearing to continue the hearing to 1 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 1.
Zoning enforcement officer Matt Rock said Friday that the adjourned meeting will take place in the second-floor courtroom at the Ford County Courthouse, as the court will not be in session that day.
Thursday’s hearing will start with public comment, which Rock said could last a lengthy time, followed by consideration of the amended setback proposal and other changes proposed for the county’s ordinance regulating wind farms.
Last Thursday’s hearing was a continuation of a previous public hearing, which involved sworn testimony. Rock said the board could not limit speakers, but board Chairman Ron Moore did encourage those testifying last week not to “continue to repeat the same points from person to person.”
At last Thursday’s hearing, testimony lasted a little more than three hours with a short break in between. Seven people took the witness stand during that time, two of whom gave lengthy presentations lasting at least one hour.
The zoning board 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.
Meanwhile, wind energy development firms have been asking 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.
Some rural residents, on the other hand, have been pushing for a 3,250-foot setback instead – and from property lines, not homes. They say 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.
The right to speak?
Phil Luetkehans, an Itasca-based attorney who has represented several notable clients in the Chicago area in his career, stood up and announced he was representing “Ford County Citizens for Public and Private Property Rights,” a citizen advocacy group which is advocating for a mandatory 3,250-foot setback from property lines.
He announced he was sending three witnesses to testify.
Moore asked Luetkehans why he signed up to speak at the public hearing when he was not speaking himself, to which Luetkehans responded by saying that Moore was taking a “large risk” by not letting his clients testify.
“Under the statute, there is the ability to present evidence,” Luetkehans said. “If you do not allow it, you run the risk of your entire hearing being invalid.”
Mark Gershon, an attorney representing Apex Clean Energy, developer of the proposed Ford Ridge Wind Farm near Gibson City and Sibley, immediately objected by saying Luetkehans’ witnesses did not have the authority to speak.
“This is not a quasi-judicial hearing,” Gershon said. “It’s not a special use. It’s not an administrative action. It’s an action where an attorney is allowed to speak but is not allowed to call witnesses or cross-examine people. It’s a public hearing for public comment to be given, not a trial.”
Luetkehans responded by saying: “We have testimony, I have testimony, and we signed up to testify.”
Moore gave in to Luetkehans and allowed his three witnesses to speak.
Speaking from experience
The first person to speak was a Capron woman and her husband, who spoke about their successful experience with the Illinois Farm Bureau (IFB) and Boone County officials to get a proposed Boone County wind farm halted in 2016.
The woman said she had been a member of the IFB’s legislative panel in 2013 when the organization was considering wind farm legislation. In her case, she said the IFB removed parts of members’ proposals which were deemed “hostile” by wind energy companies.
Noting that renewable energy projects often receive the blessing of metropolitan legislators, she noted that those folks do not have rural residents’ interest at heart. She said urban legislators view rural areas simply as “utility outlets, because they will never face living or working around an industrial wind project, as long as they live in town.”
After the woman’s husband testified, Luetkehans called rural Loda resident Howard Ford to the stand to speak about his experience living near a wind turbine.
Ford said he owns a 5-acre settlement near the Iroquois County line southeast of Loda, where he has lived since retiring. Ford said he and his wife completed a major renovation project on their old farm house and expanded it shortly before a nearby wind farm’s turbines were turned on in 2010.
Ford said an old farmer told him there were two sides to the issue before he began renovating his house.
“There’s two types of farmers who deal with wind farms: ones who take the money and ones who have to live with it,” Ford said. “I’m one that has to live with it.”
Ford played homemade videos off of his laptop that he took inside and outside his home in 2012 and in the years since then. While extremely low-quality, shadow flicker could be seen illuminating from the outside windows into his home.
Ford said the shadow flicker is present in every room in his house, and it has caused his house to vibrate and loud noises have made it hard to sleep.
In addition, Ford said the turbine blades absorb microwave signals, meaning that he cannot receive wireless Internet consistently. He said that had he had known about the wind turbine project beforehand, he wouldn’t have remodeled his house when he did and would have considered selling it instead.
He also brought up the fact that the wind turbine adjacent to his property is 1,500 feet from his house, which is the same setback that Apex Energy is requesting.
“These things need to be addressed,” he said.
Ford said he hopes to see the turbines removed at the end of the wind farm’s 20-year life cycle.
“I hope I’m alive in 20 years so I can watch them take those things down, because if they don’t, nature will take them down,” he explained. “If they fall, I’ll have blades in my roof because that’s how far they fall.”
‘Violation of our rights’
Following Ford’s testimony, Luetkehans attempted to speak at the podium but was stopped by Moore.
“You said you had three people to testify,” Moore told him. “I allowed them to testify, and now it’s time to move on.”
“Your job is to complete a public record,” Luetkehans responded. “We have a record that we are willing to present, and to be stopped from doing that is a violation of our rights.”
Moore then gave Luetkehans an unlimited time – as required – for him to present testimony. The attorney spoke for nearly 45 minutes, mainly focusing on documents and presentations.
Following a 10-minute break at 8:30 p.m., the meeting resumed.
Ted Hartke takes the podium
Ted Hartke, a civil engineer from rural Sidney, then spoke for almost 90 minutes while pleading with board members not to allow more wind turbines in Ford County.
Hartke began by explaining his background. A Teutopolis native, Hartke spoke of his family’s farming background and history with the National FFA Organization.
Ironically, Hartke said, he was not against wind turbines when they were first constructed in the area. While driving his two children to a church camp at Evergreen Lake in 2008, he said his family stopped their car and admired the newly built Twin Groves Wind Farm in eastern McLean County, thinking that they would not be a problem.
In 2012, Invenergy proposed a wind farm in western Vermilion County. Hartke said his neighbors signed up to have two large turbines constructed on their properties, which were adjacent to Hartke’s house in unincorporated Hope along Illinois 49.
While the McLean County turbines are only 400 feet tall and have a 1-acre swath with their blades, he said the Vermilion County wind turbines are much larger and take up a 2-acre swath when the blades are moving.
“These are the largest turbines to be constructed in Illinois and Indiana combined,” Hartke said.
When the turbines were first turned on in spring 2013, Hartke said he was successful in getting Invenergy to only operate turbines during the daytime hours to eliminate any problems at night.
Unfortunately, Hartke said, that agreement lasted fewer than two months, and in May 2013, the turbines were turned on all night long.
Once the turbines were turned on at night, his two children had to wear headphones to cut out the noise, and the entire family was forced sleep on couches in their living room instead of in bedrooms because it was quieter.
However, that solution was simply not going to work, Hartke said.
“If you lose sleep for one night, you can probably recuperate, but if you lose sleep five out of the seven nights, that’s what was happening to us,” Hartke said.
So in December 2013, the Hartke family packed their belongings and moved into a trailer near his in-laws in Collison. Currently, they reside near Sidney.
Two years after putting his property up for sale, Hartke closed on a sale in December 2015 for $100,000 less than he believed it was worth.
Causing a stir
Hartke caused a stir near the end of his presentation, when he compared wind turbines to pedophiles.
“I was perfectly fine with my neighbors doing whatever they wanted to do with their land,” Hartke said. “I think people own all of their land, all the way next to the property line. I was cool with the neighbors doing that, but not when it came inside our private space, into my daughter’s bedroom. I don’t think anyone would want a creepy neighbor sliding their hands under the sheets of your daughter’s bed.”
After the audience was settled, Hartke further explained his analogy.
“I don’t think anyone here wants their daughter disturbed, touched, bothered, kept awake in their bed at night, and we left our house because of it,” Hartke said.
Hartke said wind turbine noise is akin to lead paint or asbestos, saying, “Just because you haven’t experienced it doesn’t mean you should.”
Hartke then slammed wind energy companies for destroying property owners’ rights while keeping them silent about it.
“The next time you buy a new vehicle at Shields (Automart) or any other dealership, do you want to sign a gag order in case the vehicle guzzles gas or the tires get worn easily?” Hartke asked. “There’s a reason why wind turbines have gag orders (in the contracts landowners sign).”
Hartke also explained that wind farm developers could easily find a way around increased setbacks by simply signing waivers with landowners.
“If you want to put that (larger) setback in there and the wind company still wants to build the wind farm, all you have to do is allow for waivers,” Hartke said. “The wind company is banking on you giving your property rights away.”
Hartke requested that Apex and other wind farm developers sign property-value clauses ensuring homeowners do not lose money on the value of their homes.
“If the wind turbines say there’s no property-value loss, have them sign a property value clause,” Hartke said. “If (rural residents) decide to leave town because they can’t sleep anymore, whatever their house is worth before the wind farm project is what it should be worth after it. But if it’s on the market for three years and you lose $100,000 like I did, someone should make up for that.”
A big headache
After Hartke was done speaking, Roberts resident Chris Hanford spoke on behalf of her son, Elliott Hanford, who she said suffers from an audio sensory problem and gets headaches when driving near wind turbines on his way to work in Bloomington.
The noise from the turbines has forced him to drive on country roads instead of the main highways, she said, causing problems at night and during the winter.
Hanford also brought up the political mailers that have been sent to Ford County residents opposing Ann and Cindy Ihrke’s joint campaign for seats on the Ford County Board.
“They seem to be propaganda (for the wind energy industry) and intimidation and want to affect how we vote, and I think that’s wrong,” she said.
600 feet ‘way too high’
Last to speak was ford County Board member Tom McQuinn, who told the panel that he lives 2,500 feet from a wind turbine. McQuinn said he considers the turbine too close to his house, adding that it causes loud noises.
In addition to increased setbacks, the zoning board is considering a proposal to allow turbines as tall as 600 feet – up from 500 feet. McQuinn is opposed to that proposal.
“There’s a lot of us that think 600 feet is way too high,” McQuinn said. “We would want to set it closer to 500 feet.”
Another meeting set
Once sworn testimony had concluded, Moore announced that the meeting was over and a new one would start at 1 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 1.
Melvin resident Dean Dillon expressed frustration by the board’s refusal to allow any more public comment.
“I did not give up my right to speak,” Dillon told Moore. “I’ve got six minutes worth of material that you haven’t heard yet.”
Rock then told the audience that anyone who had signed up to speak that night would be permitted to speak at the start of the next meeting.
Regarding the Nov. 1 meeting, rural Melvin resident Patti Meunier asked why an evening meeting could not take place instead of one in the early afternoon. One zoning board member told her that he had also worked a long day “and I don’t need another midnight (meeting).”
Another audience member pleaded with board members to move the meeting until later in the day.
“I farm and work full-time,” he explained. “There’s no way I’m coming in here at 1 o’clock in the afternoon. You guys decided to move the meeting. You’re doing it at a time when no one can be here.”
Moore told the man that the board has the final say in determining a meeting date.
“It’s our privilege to set the meeting, and we do it when we can have it,” Moore said.
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