PAXTON – The debate over wind energy in Ford County is not over, although some progress was finally made Thursday.
After hearing several hours of public comments over the course of three meetings in the past month, the Ford County Zoning Board of Appeals voted 4-0 to advance to the county board a package of recommended changes to the county’s ordinance regulating wind farms.
The zoning board’s recommendations were mostly in line with changes proposed earlier by the county board’s zoning committee. The only exceptions were in regards to setbacks – the minimum distances wind turbines must be from structures and property lines – as the zoning board recommended setbacks not as restrictive as some members of the committee wanted.
Tom McQuinn of rural Paxton was among the committee members who favored a 2,250-foot setback from “primary structures,” such as homes. When the county board considers the zoning board’s recommendations at an upcoming meeting, McQuinn plans to hold firm on his opinion and cast a “no” vote on the zoning board’s recommended 1,800-foot setback.
But still, McQuinn thinks progress – even if only slight progress – has been made.
“We’re closer than we were, but I think we still have a little ways to go,” McQuinn said.
The county board’s chairman, Randy Berger, is expected to schedule a meeting at some point for the 12-member county board to discuss and possibly vote on the recommended ordinance revisions. Berger said Tuesday that the board would discuss plans for the meeting next Monday night.
“I’m guessing it will be in a couple of weeks,” Berger said.
Thursday’s hearing of the zoning board of appeals, continued from a week earlier, featured two hours of public comments from 24 people, with views presented on both sides of the wind-energy debate.
By contrast, there were few opinions expressed amongst the zoning board’s four members during the half-hour they spent reviewing the ordinance following the public-comment portion of the meeting. The zoning board – which comprises Ronald Moore of Gibson City as its chairman, along with Edward Moritz of rural Cullom, Kirk Rock of rural Roberts and Roger Wyckoff of Piper City – reviewed each proposed change and made its own recommendations with little discussion before taking a vote.
One recommendation by the zoning board was to increase the existing 1,000-foot setback between wind turbines and primary structures to 1,800 feet, or three times a turbine’s tip height, whichever is greater. Zoning board members noted that it would mean an 80 percent increase in distance. Also, even if a waiver of the requirement is sought, under no circumstance can a turbine be closer than 1,000 feet from any home, they added.
However, the recommended setback was 450 feet smaller than the zoning committee proposed. The zoning committee, in a split vote, had agreed on a 2,250-foot setback, or four times a turbine’s tip height, whichever is greater.
The zoning board’s recommended setback from primary structures appears to have been a compromise. Wind-energy development firms had been asking for a 1,500-foot setback from primary structures, or three times a turbine’s tip height, whichever is greater. Some rural residents, on the other hand, had been pushing for a 3,250-foot setback instead – and from property lines, not homes.
After the vote, Moore acknowledged that not everyone would be happy.
“I’m sure we didn’t make everyone happy,” Moore said, “but we’ve done what we think will be workable.”
Moore also offered his thanks to community members and others for providing their input and staying composed while debating what can be an emotional issue.
“I appreciate your cooperation,” Moore told the crowd inside the second-floor courtroom at the Ford County Courthouse. “I think that we need to get a bus together and send a busload to D.C. to show those people (in Congress) how to conduct themselves at hearings. You guys did good, and I appreciate it.”
The county’s zoning enforcement officer, Matt Rock, noted that the zoning board’s decision is only a recommendation to the county board, and the changes are “not set in stone.”
“These are recommendations to the county board,” Rock said. “They’ll make the final decisions. They have the power to change these (recommendations), kick them back (to the zoning board), whatever they want to do.”
Besides recommending an increase in the setbacks from primary structures – which, Rock noted, do not include barns or grain bins – the zoning board recommended, among other measures:
— Allowing turbines’ tip heights to be up to 600 feet above ground, up from 500 feet.
— Increasing the setback from “legally established boundaries of platted communities” to 1,500 feet.
— Increasing the setback from adjacent property lines to 1.25 times a turbine’s tip height.
— Increasing the setback from transmission lines, telephone lines and communication towers to 1.1 times a turbine’s tip height.
— Increasing the setback from the nearest edge of right-of-way of public roads to 1.1 times a turbine’s tip height.
— Requiring that, prior to construction, a wind-farm owner/operator conduct a baseline study of all property within a 5-mile radius of a wind farm to determine any interference with residents’ television and Internet reception.
— Providing a formal process for complaints against a wind farm to be addressed. Once a written complaint is made, the wind farm’s owner/operator would be given 30 days to respond. If the issue is still not resolved within 60 days of the complaint being made, the county board may assess a penalty of no less than $500 per day the complaint goes unresolved beyond that point. The board can also revoke a wind farm’s special-use permit through a super-majority vote of the board.
— Requiring that a wind farm’s owner/operator provide cost estimates for the decommissioning of its wind farm at least once every two years. The biannual estimates must come from a professional engineer licensed in Illinois.
— Requiring that a wind farm’s owner/operator provide to the county at least $35,000 in financial assurance for each turbine to cover the cost of decommissioning. The financial assurance must be provided prior to building permits being issued for the construction of a wind farm.
— Requiring a wind farm’s owner/operator to provide quarterly production reports showing how often each turbine is functioning. If the production reports show a turbine is not working, a remedy must be provided to get the turbine back in working order within six months, with the county board being given updates on the progress every 30 days until the turbine is repaired.
— Increasing the building permit fees for wind turbines to $10,000 per 2-megawatt turbine, plus $5,000 per additional megawatt.
The debate at Thursday’s hearing was basically the same as it had been during other zoning board hearings this fall.
Previously, representatives of wind-energy firms argued that a 1,500-foot setback from homes would be larger than that of most counties in the state. They also testified that a 2,250-foot setback from homes 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.
Meanwhile, a number of rural landowners, in pushing for a 3,250-foot setback from property lines instead of homes, noted 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.
Ford County already has two wind farms in operation but is not allowing any more to be permitted before the setback issues – and others – are resolved. Some people want more wind farms to be built in Ford County because they would help grow the county’s property tax revenue, bringing in some needed money to the county’s schools.
Like Ford County, neighboring Iroquois County once had moratorium in place on the permitting of more wind farms. During Thursday’s hearing, Rita Shure, wife of Iroquois County Board Chairman John Shure, read a letter that her husband wrote, urging Ford County to handle its issues similarly to how Iroquois County did.
In Iroquois County, she said, a compromise was reached by establishing a setback that provided protection for nonparticipating property owners. The setback equaled a distance of 12 rotar diameters between a turbine and a nonparticipating landowner’s property lines. The setback equaled a lesser amount – 1,000 feet from primary structures – for participating property owners. She noted that waivers could be obtained, as well.
In urging Ford County to adopt similar provisions, Shure said he believed it would “best serve the interests of all citizens and will provide a workable solution for all concerned.”
Meanwhile, Erin Baker, senior development manager for Apex Clean Energy, based in Charlottesville, Va., noted that Iroquois County’s “so-called compromise” has not led to any further construction of wind farms in that county.
“I’m aware of no wind developers currently developing in Iroquois County, and I think that there is a reason for that,” Baker said. “It’s because it was not truly a compromise.”
Baker again urged Ford County to adopt a 1,500-foot setback from primary structures, or three times a turbine’s tip height, whichever is greater.
Meanwhile, in advocating for a larger, 2,250-foot setback, McQuinn said he has heard a number of complaints from rural residents living near the Pioneer Trail Wind Farm east of Paxton regarding the noise and shadow flicker they have to live with.
McQuinn said he lives about 2,500 feet from one of the wind farm’s turbines, and he can sometimes hear the turbine even at that large of a distance.
“There are times it is extremely loud,” McQuinn said. “It’s not all the time, but the thump, the whistle, it is bad. I personally wouldn’t want to tell anybody else in Ford County that they would have to live any closer than the proposed 2,250 feet (to a turbine). … If you’ve ever lived by one, you can understand. You can stand out by one for days and you will never hear it, but when the wind conditions are right, it’s loud – very, very loud.”
McQuinn noted that a wind farm can still be built with 2,250-foot setbacks, adding that waivers could be obtained to allow turbines to be built closer than 2,250 feet if desired.
McQuinn also said he is not a proponent of allowing 600-foot turbines. He noted that county officials and members of the public have repeatedly asked wind-farm developers for “setback safety requirements” for the skyscraping turbines they intend to build in Ford County, but none have been provided to show that a safe distance from those turbines exists.
“So, again, I kind of hope that it stays at the 500-foot mark,” McQuinn said.
Phil Luetkehans – an Itasca-based attorney who was representing “Ford County Citizens for Public and Private Property Rights,” a citizen advocacy group advocating for a 3,250-foot setback from property lines – told the zoning board that it should demand more information about the safety of turbines, too.
“What didn’t the people from the wind-energy companies provide you with? Those actual specifications,” Luetkehans told the zoning board. “If they wanted to show that these were safe up to a particular distance … we would have seen those specifications from the wind-energy companies.
“But you didn’t.”
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