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New wind-farm rules could reduce scope of Apex’s project, but may not kill it

GIBSON CITY – The more-restrictive setbacks and other new regulations for wind farms currently under consideration by the Ford County Board could make it “extremely difficult, if not impossible,” for Apex Clean Energy to build its proposed 250-megawatt Ford Ridge Wind Farm in the Gibson City and Sibley areas, a company representative said Thursday.

However, J.J. Stone, a project manager for the Charlottesville, Va.-based firm, said that even if the board approves the new rules, a smaller version of the wind farm could still be built.

The Ford County Zoning Board of Appeals last fall granted Apex Clean Energy a three-year extension of its special-use permit to build 67 wind turbines near Gibson City and Sibley. The permit – originally acquired on Nov. 2, 2009, by Houston-based BP Alternative Energy, which later sold the project – was extended to Nov. 2, 2021, marking the third time a three-year extension was granted for the project.

While the 67-turbine project would not be quite as big as the 250-megawatt, 80-to-100-turbine project Apex hopes to construct, it remains a buildable option, Stone said. It is an option that notably will not be affected by any new regulations the county board implements, as the permit was issued under the county’s original wind-farm ordinance dating back to 2009.

“We do still have the permit for a smaller project in hand, so what we may end up doing (if more restrictive rules are put in place for yet-to-be-permitted wind farms) is maybe split up the wind farm into phases, where we build one (phase under the existing permit) and then hopefully down the line, if changes are made in the future (to make the ordinance less restrictive), we can build that second phase,” Stone told members of the Gibson Area Chamber of Commerce during their monthly general meeting Thursday at The Sand Trap in Gibson City.

Stone noted there is “still a lot up in the air at this point,” given that the 12-member county board has yet to approve a final version of its revised wind-farm ordinance. Stone said his company continues to be in contact with board members about coming to a compromise that would protect rural landowners not participating in a wind farm as well as the interests of developers – “something equitable that works for both parties.”

“We’re still crossing our fingers and remaining optimistic and fighting a good fight,” Stone said.

Stone acknowledged that progress in reaching such a compromise may have taken a step back late last month when board members voted 9-1 in favor of a proposal to restrict wind turbines from being built any closer than 2,250 feet from a property line.

The measure, part of a larger package of ordinance revisions that will be up for approval once finalized, is designed to protect rural residents from the low-frequency noise and shadow flicker, among other nuisances, that turbines can create. But the measure also is considered so restrictive that Apex – as well as the developers of two other proposed wind farms – may be forced to pull the plug on their projects.

“We were a bit disappointed in the decision that was made a couple weeks ago,” Stone said. “(The proposed setback) is something that is certainly the largest in the state and will make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to develop and build the (expanded version of Apex’s) project here in the county.”

Despite a moratorium on the issuance of any new special-use permits for wind farms having been in place since October 2017, Apex has been working to sign up more landowners for the expanded, 250-megawatt wind farm it hopes to eventually build, which would produce enough electricity to power some 20,000 to 30,000 homes, Stone said.

The moratorium will not be lifted until the board finishes revising its wind-farm ordinance, but Apex officials have remained hopeful throughout the process that whatever new rules are implemented will not prevent the expanded project from coming to fruition.

“I would say that if 2,250 (feet) did stay (as the new setback from property lines) – if that’s what ends up being passed – we would just have to go back internally (as a company) and kind of see how much that takes out of our buildable area,” Stone said. “We’d have to kind of go back internally and kind of re-evaluate if that would work.”

The backup plan, of course, is building the smaller project already permitted, Stone said.

Stone said Ford County is an attractive area for building wind farms because of its wind resources as well as the community.

“From a wind-resource perspective, our analysts, they sort of say it’s ‘Texas wind in the middle of Illinois,’” Stone said. “It’s a really, really strong wind resource. And it’s a farming community, where we’ve had success in farming communities before.

“While not everyone might be on board or want the project here, people are at the very least cordial. I don’t have doors slammed in my face or people yelling at me, so that part is nice.”

The expanded version of 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.