NEWMAN – At the only gas station in town, Terry Payton relaxes with his morning coffee, sitting at a small table with a picturesque view of the city of Newman.
Usually, the retired iron worker has company from other locals, especially farmers, who drop by the BP nearly every morning and discuss whatever’s on their minds – sports, weather, what’s in the news.
These days, conversation often turns to the latest word on Harvest Ridge Wind Farm, a massive project that a Texas company hopes to build north of this cozy Douglas County community later this year.
“It’s a big deal,” said Payton, a lifelong Newman resident who spent two years as a welder on crews that built the California Ridge Wind Farm in Champaign and Vermilion counties.
A $340 million investment, the proposed 200-megawatt wind farm would be able to generate enough power to supply 69,000 average Illinois homes, according to Houston-based EDP Renewables, which developed the Rail Splitter and Twin Groves wind farms near Bloomington and the Top Crop complex farther north.
“I see both sides,” said Payton, pointing to the obvious benefit – a projected $2.4 million for area schools, roads and fire departments, among others. Harvest Ridge would also likely mean construction jobs for his fellow iron workers.
Yard signs, both for and against the project, dot road sides in and around Newman (population somewhere between 900 and 1,000, depending which green sign you pass on the way in).
But none of EDP’s projected tax revenue would go to the actual city of Newman, because none of the turbines would be located inside the city limits. They can’t be within 1.5 miles of Newman, but they’d be in plain view, which upsets some here.
“It’s the topic of conversation,” a smiling Brandi Wills said from behind the check-out counter at the BP station. She said she’s overheard plenty of heated morning debates over the project, but she’s sure the “tight-knit community” will survive the divisive issue.
Almost everybody has an opinion on it, said Steve Wills, Brandi’s husband. A member of the band X-Krush, Steve and Brandi co-own the BP, along with other family members.
“It’s growing to be a bigger topic day by day,” he said, adding that there are pros and cons. He believes the turbines will be a blight on the landscape, but he won’t be living next door to one.
Payton downplays the debate, saying discussions he’s had are really all in good fun.
“It’s no knock-down, drag-out deal,” he said.
Others here, however, see it differently.
“It’s really splitting the community, and it’s not good,” David Albin, who farms south of Newman, said over lunch at the Corn Crib restaurant on the town square. Count him against Harvest Ridge, for a number of reasons. Opinions among fellow farmers are split, as well.
“It’s really gotten ugly,” he said.
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Nine years ago, Steve and Brandi Wills moved to Newman after falling in love with a large brick fixer-upper on the main drag. Ever since, they’ve been slowly renovating the house on Broadway Avenue.
Their story is one Newman native and city Mayor Jim Allen hopes to hear more of.
“I want to make this a place people want to live,” said Allen, sitting in the board room, located in the town’s former grade school. Closed about five years ago, Newman saved the building from the Shiloh school district wrecking ball, revamping it into city hall, the regional library, a community center, gymnasium and a pre-school screening program, all paid for with private dollars.
“I’m really happy with what we’ve done,” Allen said.
Before he addresses the topic on most minds here, Allen would rather talk about all of the other aspects that make Newman great – the affordable housing, low taxes, large lots, strong core of police and fire volunteers, accessible park and new Dollar General store, which saves residents a 15-minute trip to Tuscola for basic needs.
But like many American small towns, Newman also struggles with declining property values, loss of business, vacant properties and shrinking population – and Allen doesn’t envision a wind farm helping with any of that.
“There definitely will not be a benefit to the town,” said the mayor, quick to note that wind is not a viable source of energy without government subsidies.
Allen also points to the ridge north of town – where the proposed wind farm got its new name – and the view of the Newman area from that spot.
“That’s what you’re going to screw up,” he said.
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Harvest Ridge would create up to 250 full-time equivalent jobs during construction and eight to 10 permanent jobs to operate and maintain the turbines once they’re up and running, according to EDP.
In August, the company held an open house for local businesses interested in the project. According to EDP, about 50 were represented.
The construction phase would also drum up some business within the city of Newman, be it workers dining at the Corn Crib and Pizza Man, filling up at the BP station or using the town’s banks.
Two small school districts – Shiloh and Heritage High – would be the biggest financial beneficiaries of the project, according to detailed estimates released last week by EDP. Of the tax revenue generated by the wind farms, Shiloh would be the big winner, taking in $850,000 in Year 1 alone. That’s tops among 16 area taxing districts, a list that also includes four based in Newman – the fire district ($65,000), the regional library ($60,000), the township road district ($230,000) and the township itself ($220,000).
Former Newman Fire Chief Dennis Kibler notes that $65,000 is only $5,000 shy of the fire district’s annual budget.
“It would help the fire department quite a bit,” Kibler said, particularly with the effort to save up for a much-needed new firetruck. “I hate to see how it’s dividing the town. That’s what’s bad about it.”
Local farmer Gary Luth, who lives north of Newman in the wind-farm footprint, said he can’t argue with the tax revenue impact. But, he added, it’s only a matter of time before those property tax values will start to decline, and the “dollars will go down.”
EDP officials say the assessed value of the wind-turbine equipment will depreciate by 2 percent each year. By law, the value can never dip below 30 percent of the original amount, thereby ensuring a long-term, stable source of income.
Luth chose not to sign up his own land with EDP, citing concerns with terms of the lease.
“I don’t think it’s proven to be the small-town boom that will salvage America,” he said.
Jim Biddle, who lives north of Newman, said he signed a lease with EDP. The way it’s worked out, he won’t get a turbine, but he’s still in favor of the development.
The bottom line, he said, is it’s an economic opportunity for this rural area that probably won’t come along again.
“To me, it’s just economics. I’ve been saying that all along,” said Biddle, who has friends near Galesburg who leased land to a wind farm. He said they’ve had a positive experience and he expects the same when he looks north from his front porch months from now.
“I don’t see ugly,” he said. “I see opportunity.”
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Longtime Newman residents remember when their town was booming and storefronts on the square were full.
EDP has opened a local office in one of those storefronts, just a few doors down from Longview Capital Corp. The local farmer-owned business is one of the few left in a city that thrived prior to the 1980s, with multiple grocery stores, restaurants, gas stations, clothing shops and barbershops, as well as a hardware store, its own K-12 schools and a dime store, which was demolished about four years ago.
“We’ve lost all our businesses,” said Jim Sanstrom, supervisor of Newman Township.
He can’t remember an issue as divisive as the wind farm in this “tight-knit” town where people help each other. He said he’s tried to remain neutral.
“I think that’s my job,” he said.
But Sanstrom and other local officials are at the center of the debate as the township considers its own more restrictive wind regulations that could drastically change EDP’s plans.
Sanstrom said he didn’t see this coming.
“I never thought it would be this controversial,” he said while ordering lunch at the Corn Crib.
From behind the lunch counter, Newman native Sue Van Sickle recalls better economic times, too. The city was dealt a blow when the coal mine in nearby Murdock closed, she said, noting that many miners who lived in Newman left town for work elsewhere.
And then there was Reconteck, a 66,000-square-foot facility built in 1990 just outside of Newman with high hopes for recycling industrial waste. Van Sickle got a job there, but by 1993, plans hadn’t panned out and layoffs were announced. Today, it sits vacant.
That’s what some area residents fear most. David Albin, who farms south of town, said EDP isn’t proposing enough money for deconstruction of the turbines “if they go belly up.”
In Newman, wind-farm arguments on both sides mirror those in other communities across the country.
Supporters tout job creation, tax revenue and clean, renewable energy. Opponents cite company’s reliance on government subsidies, uncertainty with wind’s future, negative effects on property values and health and quality of life issues for those who live in the turbines’ shadows.
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For generations, open, flat land as far as the eye can see has surrounded Newman.
It’s prime ground for farming – and also for global companies looking for large chunks of land where there’s nothing to block the wind.
Retired farmer John Albin said people here want to leave their rich farmland to their heirs because it holds its value, unlike stocks and bonds. But some third-generation farmers don’t appreciate the land’s true value, “so they’ll sign it up for anything,” he said.
EDP’s efforts represent “probably the most permanent attempt to ruin the farmland,” he said. “There’s land not as productive where they can build these and the wind blows just the same.”
More than 85 percent of Douglas County is corn or soybean fields. They pump out per-acre averages of 211 bushels of corn and 63 bushels of soybeans, according to 2017 USDA statistics, outpacing the average statewide.
“There’s a lot of pride in the productivity of our soils,” said Luth, who will have a turbine about 1,500 feet from his home, on a neighbor’s property, if Harvest Ridge happens. “And I’m certainly not opposed to renewable energy. It’s probably an important key to energy independence. But I think there are better places to site them.”
Harvest Ridge would have about 40 turbines in Newman Township, generally following a subtle ridge about five miles north of Newman. More would be in nearby Murdock Township.
Across the entire wind farm, about 95 acres of farmland would be pulled out of production, according to Harvest Ridge project manager Amy Kurt, who tells doubters that wind complements the local farming industry and provides another stable cash crop.
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EDP officials are planning for Harvest Ridge to both be built and operational in 2019. Land leases and customers are already lined up.
Wal-Mart has signed on to buy 233 megawatts of electricity from EDP’s various wind farms, including 50 megawatts specifically from Harvest Ridge. A local cooperative, the Wabash Valley Power Association, has plans to purchase 100 megawatts for 20 years and a second unidentified private purchaser will buy 50 megawatts for an undisclosed number of years.
But a zoning battle that has spilled into court could jeopardize all of that.
EDP recently filed a lawsuit against Murdock Township, which last fall created and enacted its own zoning requirements for wind, separate and more restrictive than the Douglas County ordinance that was intended to be countywide.
In the lawsuit, EDP attorneys argue that the township ordinances are designed “in a manner in which it would be effectively impossible to develop and permit the project.” The company’s complaint states that Murdock Township’s actions are prejudicial to the project, contrary to zoning authority granted to townships by the Illinois General Assembly and an improper attempt to override the county’s wind-farm ordinance.
EDP is asking the court for injunctive relief against the township’s efforts. In January, a judge denied the company’s request for a preliminary injunction while the case for permanent relief works its way through the court process. The next hearing is scheduled for later this month.
In Newman, township officials followed Murdock’s lead, appointing a zoning panel that drew up its own wind regulations, which have yet to be enacted. It’s a point of contention around town: those against the project want to vote now; those in favor want to hold off. A township attorney has cautioned that enacting zoning would likely lead to a lawsuit from EDP.
Many here note that the EDP structures would be the largest land-based turbines in the U.S. – standing 591 feet tall.
“I feel like the setbacks should be a little stronger for something that large,” Luth said.
Douglas County’s ordinance allows turbines to be 1,000 feet from a house. Newman Township has proposed 2,300-foot setbacks.
Luth said the regulations weren’t drawn up arbitrarily and that much of what was used came from other counties.
“We’ve been accused of stopping the wind farm,” said Luth, adding that the project was originally named after Broadlands, in Champaign County, where EDP was studying potential sites.
“So the reason they are not in Champaign County is because restrictions are less in Douglas, not because the wind is better.”
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Despite strong opinions on either side of the issue, Newman’s mayor believes the town will survive the controversy.
But, Allen added, “I’m not saying it hasn’t caused friction. It has.”
That, David Albin said, has been the most unfortunate outcome of all this – the dividing of the community and the damaged relationships between neighbors.
“And in a small community,” he said, “that’s important.”