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In DeWitt County wind farm debate, quality of life vs. jobs, tax revenue at stake

CLINTON – Opposing sides for a proposed wind farm in DeWitt County say they are prepared for up to 35 hours of scheduled meetings before the Zoning Board of Appeals, beginning Tuesday night at Clinton High School.

“It’s going to be a long month,” said Andrea Rhoades, a rural DeWitt County resident who opposes the project.

Tradewind Energy has applied for a special use permit to develop a $300 million wind farm in northwestern DeWitt County. It’s the first wind farm application in the county.

Last month, the Regional Planning Commission voted 3-1 with two abstentions against a positive recommendation, but that wasn’t necessarily a defeat, said Tom Swierczewski, a development director for the proposed Alta Farms II project.

“I think there are a lot of project details that are being overlooked,” he said. “People really haven’t had the chance to ask questions about the specifics and that is an important part of the ZBA process.”

The company is asking to build and operate a wind energy conversion system that consists of about 67 individual wind turbines, none taller than 591 feet.

Five-hour meetings at the high school are scheduled for Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, as well as Feb. 19 through Feb. 22. The meetings are scheduled to start at 5 p.m. and conclude by 10 p.m. They are open to the public, but those wanting to speak must sign up between 4 and 5 p.m. Tuesday at the school.

The ZBA will then consider making a recommendation to the DeWitt County Board that likely will consider the special use permit in March.

Rhoades, who lives in the footprint of the planned project, leads a vocal group of opponents who have fought to keep the wind farm out of the county, fighting for changes to the county’s wind farm zoning codes and campaigning to block the project.

“We are aware of some of the questions and comments from some of the concerned citizens, and I think they will get answers to a lot of those questions through our presentations,” Swierczewski said.

“I am not sure they are going to be satisfied with all of our answers, but we are going to answer openly and honestly. This is the first time to have this extensive of an overview in the year’s time that we have been planning for this. That’s a big part of this process.”

The project, if approved by the county board, would generate more than 200 jobs during construction and 12 permanent jobs during operation, Swierczewski said.

Also, nearly $5 million will be paid to DeWitt County in property taxes over the life of the project and another $3.3 million in property taxes will go to the Barnett, Clintonia and Wapella townships. School districts, such as the Clinton School District, and community colleges, fire departments and libraries would benefit as well, he added.

But none of that is worth it, argue a number of opponents, such as Dale Naffziger, who previously testified against the project before the planning commission and ZBA. Last year, both panels considered and recommended some changes to zoning codes that were later approved by the county board.

“When I bought my property eight or nine years ago, I looked around and realized that this is where I want to live,” said Naffziger. “I came here for the scenery. I love the way the county feels. I have taken hundreds of pictures of sunsets. We had an ice storm in early January and I posted pictures on Facebook and hundreds of people commented. … I would not have bought my property if I thought a wind farm was going to be built a quarter of a mile away. I wouldn’t have done it.”

If approved, ground would be broken on the project in late spring with completion by the end of 2020, said Tradewind.

“Since this is the first time an industrial wind project has been proposed for our county, it’s important we get it right the first time,” Rhoades said. “The majority of residents in DeWitt County are not in favor of this project. That was made clear with the elections in November. This hearing is yet another opportunity for the community to share their concerns about the negative impacts this project will have for our county.”

But Swierczewski said there are plenty of supporters, too – and not just the roughly 160 participating landowners.

“Through the road use and maintenance agreements, the project would improve approximately 32 miles of local roads in the project area at no cost to the residents or the townships,” he said.

Each turbine location would be located with at least a 2,000-foot setback to non-participating houses. No turbines would be located within a 1.5 mile-radius of the city limits of Clinton, Waynesville or Wapella, according to the application.

Last week, the company signed a power purchase agreement with the Indiana Municipal Power Agency for power generated from the project. In the agreement, agency would purchase 75 megawatts of the 200 megawatt project.

Wind has been a success story in Illinois in the past 15 years, said Swierczewski, noting that the 25 largest wind farms in Illinois have created 20,173 full-time equivalent jobs during construction, and support nearly 900 permanent jobs in rural Illinois for the operation and maintenance of wind farms.

“Alta Farms II would help further the vision of the county,” he said. “Illinois wind farms signify economic stability, well-funded school districts and great roads.”