A new chapter in the Monroe County wind-farm debate begins.
The county’s Planning Commission has agreed to work with a citizens group to identify revisions that may be needed to improve its 2012 wind-farm ordinance in light of fast-changing technology and new information on how such farms have affected other communities.
The near-unanimous vote (18 in favor with one abstention) at a recent meeting was seen as a victory for the citizens group, Monroe County Fair Wind Coalition. It formed last fall, shortly after a Columbia developer spoke to the Monroe County Board of Commissioners about his plans to place up to 50 wind turbines along the Mississippi River bluffs between Valmeyer and Fults.
“Our group is not categorically against wind farms,” said member Carl DauBach, 73, of Fults. “But we want an ordinance that ensures public safety and the protection of property values.”
DauBach and nine other group members gave a presentation to the Planning Commission, citing case studies and other research and showing dramatic photos of industrial wind farms, which they called “wind factories.” They argued that a stronger ordinance is needed to anticipate problems and protect the county.
Speakers addressed possible mechanical failures with wind turbines; noise; “shadow flickers” from turbine blades and other health effects; karst geology in the bluffs; other environmental issues such as wildlife and groundwater; property values; roads and other infrastructure; and “setbacks,” the required distances between turbines and homes, other structures and roadways.
“There are too many what-ifs (with the current ordinance) to protect the taxpayers and the residents of our county,” said Rich Harsey, 47, of rural Waterloo.
DauBach, a retired Air Force colonel, was part of the ordinance-writing process seven years ago. He said people worked hard to understand technical issues and borrowed language from ordinances in other Illinois counties, but now there is more information available for better decision-making.
Seventeen Illinois counties have industrial wind farms, he said. “Nine of those 17 counties in the last five years have amended their ordinances and made them considerably more restrictive.”
DauBach told the Planning Commission that the Monroe County Fair Wind Coalition has developed an online network of about 1,100 county residents opposed to the proposed wind farm along the bluffs.
Liability concerns on all sides
About 50 people attended the Planning Commission meeting on April 4 at Monroe County Courthouse in Waterloo. It was less contentious than the County Board meeting Aug. 20, 2018, when a standing-room-only crowd showed up to hear comments by Joe Koppeis, a well-known Columbia businessman who’s planning the blufftop wind farm under the name Southern Illinois Wind.
Last week’s commission vote doesn’t mean the wind-farm ordinance will be revised, said commissioner Dave Glosecki, who made the motion to refer the matter to the Comprehensive Committee.
“The motion was to reopen the ordinance to evaluate any potential changes,” he said. “We’re not committed to changing the ordinance until we get a legal opinion on when or whether we can change it.”
Glosecki was referring to concerns by some commissioners that the county could be sued for revising the ordinance, given that a wind-farm developer already has been using it as a planning guide.
“When you change rules in the middle of the game, you may subject yourself to liability,” said commission Chairman Carlyle Mueller, who called the existing ordinance “pretty strong.”
Zoning Administrator Mike Fausz said the county did extensive research and spent a year and a half working on the ordinance before having it reviewed by an expert attorney in Chicago.
“There’s a lot in that ordinance that has to be complied with,” he said.
Koppeis hasn’t yet applied for a special-use permit from the Monroe County Zoning Board of Appeals, which gets recommendations from the Planning Commission. But he’s been making plans for a wind farm off and on for 10 years. If completed, it’s expected to cost $220 million.
Glosecki said the county also has to consider possible liability down the road. That is, if residents are harmed by a wind farm, they could sue the county for not having adequate protections in place.
“You want one lawsuit or 100 lawsuits?” Glosecki asked.
Monroe County State’s Attorney Chris Hitzmann attended the meeting and told commissioners that revising the ordinance shouldn’t be a problem if revisions are based on new information that has emerged since the ordinance was written.
Members of Monroe County Fair Wind Coalition asked if commissioners would consider a moratorium on wind farms until the ordinance-revision process is complete. That question didn’t go to a vote. Hitzmann agreed to do further research on all the legal issues.
“I want to give the board a full picture,” he said after the meeting. “Just like in a criminal case, you have to develop all sides.”
Residents draw battle lines
Koppeis owns the Rock City underground storage facility in Valmeyer, as well as restaurants, hardware stores, shopping centers, supermarkets, a medical office building and other businesses in Southern Illinois.
His wind-farm proposal would place up to 50 turbines on a 15-mile stretch of leased farmland along the bluffs between Valmeyer and Fults. He says it would generate “clean” renewable energy, create construction jobs and help to attract a tech giant such as Google, Facebook or Amazon to establish a data center at Rock City.
“In addition to that, Valmeyer School District needs tax revenue,” Koppeis said in December. “They’ve always struggled, and the wind turbines would pay real estate taxes in the amount of about $40,000 a year per turbine.”
Koppeis couldn’t be reached for comment this week.
Environmental groups generally support renewable energy, but some are opposing the Monroe County wind farm. They argue that its 600-foot-tall, 2,400-ton turbines would diminish the area’s scenic beauty, negatively affect state-protected natural sites and harm sensitive geologic features that provide habitat to 16 endangered species, including bats and crustaceans that live in caves and underground streams.
The Gateway Arch in St. Louis is 630 feet tall.
In October, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources published a report, known as an Ecological Compliance Assessment, on the proposed wind farm. It warned of possible damage to the bluffs, which are largely made of karst (eroded limestone).
“The department recommends the county consider an alternate location for this proposed action which will avoid construction over karst geology,” the report stated.
After the County Board meeting in August, wind-farm opposition spread on social media, with a public Facebook group called “Save the Bluffs – Say NO to Joe” attracting more than 600 followers. But the project received support from Laborer’s Local 196 because of jobs that would be created during construction.
In December, Koppeis asked for patience from the public while his engineers and other technical staff conducted “feasibility studies,” addressing environmental concerns and determining suitable locations for turbines. He predicted support for the wind farm would grow when all the facts came out.
“Right now, I think people are making assumptions that the data is not backing up,” he said.
Group focuses on setbacks
One of Monroe County Fair Wind Coalition’s main areas of concern involves setbacks. The county’s current wind-farm ordinance requires a distance of 1.25 times turbine height between turbines and structures or neighbors’ property lines and 1.1 times turbine height between turbines and road right-of-ways.
DauBach said those distances have been successfully challenged in court and are shorter than manufacturer-recommended “fall zones,” the distances that emergency responders should stay back during a turbine fire to avoid having it fall on them.
“It’s public endangerment,” he said. “And for us to keep this setback, it’s reckless public endangerment.”
Group member Paul Minton, a 34-year Maeystown volunteer fireman, talked about turbine fires and blade failures that, he said, can cause parts to break loose and be hurled long distances toward buildings or roadways that are too close.
“The problem with a turbine fire hundreds of feet in the air, there’s no way anybody’s going to reach it,” he said. “None of our fire departments or our first responders are equipped to control a fire of this nature.”
Group member Peggy Voelker, 60, of Valmeyer, said large-scale substations with spotlights, security cameras and high-voltage electrical lines shouldn’t be built 50 feet from a neighbor’s property line, as allowed in the ordinance. She also suggested making sure developers fix drainage or erosion problems caused by miles of underground cables.
Harsey said county roads and bridges would suffer damage from the hauling of giant parts and equipment during wind-farm construction and repairs, and some may need upgrades or modifications to handle specialized vehicles.
“Who will ultimately pay the price for these upgrades and the destruction of our roads and bridges?” he asked.
Other group members who spoke at the April 4 meeting include Kelly Brandt, of rural Fults; Mike Kaestner, of Waterloo; Alex Knoll, of rural Fults; Courtney Schweickenhardt, of Valmeyer; Merrill Prange, of Fults; and Carl’s wife, Pen DauBach.
Prange, 71, a retired county treasurer, told the Planning Commission that many wind farms are sold within three years of development, some to foreign companies or governments, and that this increases county liability.
“People whose health is threatened by the turbines have to move, but their houses don’t sell or they sell at a significant loss,” Prange said. “These people can’t afford to sue a foreign government or a huge conglomerate, so they sue the local governments to recoup some of their losses. The courts are accepting their arguments and holding counties responsible for not protecting them with adequate regulation of the wind installations.”
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