A group of Henry County landowners has filed suit against the county, the county board and Avangrid Renewables challenging the construction of the Midland Wind Farm north of Kewanee.
The suit disputes the board’s approval last December of a special use permit that would allow Avangrid to proceed to the next level of building 40 turbines in Burns and Kewanee township.
Linda Grant, who is one of 16 landowners against the wind farm, said filing a lawsuit, which is being supported with $10,000 in local donations, was a last resort. She said the county’s fast-tracking of the zoning approval had left the group no choice than to appeal to the circuit court within the 90-day window.
“We don’t want to come out like we’re going to sue everybody,” she said. “We felt we needed some representation. We’re hoping (the county) will say ‘We’ll work with you on this.’”
Grant and the group had asked the board last December to delay a decision for 90 days to give time to gather additional information on the cultural and ecological importance of the area, a request that failed on a 9-7 vote against.
Henry County State’s Attorney Matthew Schutte advised the board then that it could only delay a vote until January according to county zoning board rules. Any longer would serve as an automatic denial the permits.
Avangrid’s special use permit was ultimately granted with a 12-4 vote.
Supporters have said the wind farm represents economic growth and will bring in needed tax revenue. The wind towers are estimated to generate $25 to $30 million over the course of their life span and their construction could provide up to 200 construction jobs and four-to-six permanent jobs.
Sixty landowners have already signed leases with Avangrid and local superintendents and township road commissioners have voiced their support for the project because of the expected tax windfall for their districts.
“They pump out clean energy and pump money into our economy,” board member Lynn Sutton said in December. “If we didn’t have the wind farms, our finances would be in shambles.”
Sutton abstained in the final vote along with Kippy Breeden because both own property in the area. There currently are 239 wind towers in Henry County.
Grant’s group says the wind farm will cause several detrimental effects to the area, including threatening forest land and natural springs, and forever damage a large portion of the Great Sauk Trail and its hidden Native American artifacts.
According to Grant, the central part of the local trail, near Johnson-Sauk Trail State Park, has been protected through a historical designation local residents fought for in the 1990s when a coal mine was proposed there. But the west side, where her group is located, and the east side, located in Bureau County, have not officially been designated or protected as part of the trail.
The group in the 1990s was called STOP 1. Grant’s group has adopted the designation STOP 2.
So in addition to the lawsuit challenging the permitting process, Grant’s group has also called up Native American groups to survey the land in order to make a protectionist argument.
“We’ve had to re-educate everybody about the significance of the area,” she said, which includes not only human artifacts, but is the location of two discovered mastadon skeletons, the first found by fishermen in 1914.
The Native American nations who have expressed interest in protecting the area include Sauk/Fox, Miami, Kickapoo, Ho Chunk and Potawatami.
“They’ve all been brought into this,” Grant said. “They’ll take it over from here.”
Bill Quackenbush, historic preservation officer with the Ho Chunk, has been in the area several times to speak with landowners and survey the trail for meaningful cultural sites and artifacts.
He did not return a call to the Star Courier requesting an interview, but Grant said several people have shared with him some of the arrow and axe heads they’ve found over the years. She said Quackenbush already had a site-specific Native American map of the area and had located suspected burial mounds along the trail.
She said the varying tribes hope to present evidence to state and federal government officials, which also will have to sign off on the development, proving the path of the wind farm lies along the Sauk Trail and will cause damage to the trail’s history if it is built.
A state preservation officer is also expected to survey the land at the end of May.
“Our contention is we’re not against wind farms, but we’re against them coming into these Native American grounds,” Grant said.
Avangrid has announced it will be meeting with lease-holding landowners on April 29.
STOP 2’s lawsuit was filed March 18 and Grant says neither the company nor the county has responded. She said the group thinks both with try to dismiss the suit.
County Board Chairman Marshall Jones said the county has received the suit and it has been handed over to State’s Attorney Matthew Schutte.
But if the suit is meant to get the two sides to sit down together, he said, it probably won’t be effective.
That’s because just filing precludes anyone from the county side from meeting the group except through legal representation.
“I have met with them previously and heard their concerns,” Jones said. “We attempted to at least get them a 30-day waiver, but that vote failed.”
He said the issue is a “balancing act” because he understands the arguments on both sides of the issue.
“The question is, how far do you go in telling people what to do with their property?” he said.
Jones said the development, lawsuit notwithstanding, is still a long ways from being a done deal. He confirmed that the project still has to go through a state permitting process before the county could issue an actual building permit to Avangrid.
“They have several other hoops to jump through before they start digging,” he said.
Meanwhile, another group of landowners in Bureau County, on the east side of the Johnson Park divide, have formed to monitor the progress of Henry County’s newest wind farm project proposal.
Tim Wells, a spokesman for the group, said he and other members are concerned that the ongoing extension of Henry wind farms will eventually make it their way. Many have made donations to the STOP 2 group even though they don’t live – for now, they say – in the wind farm’s path.
He said there also a handful of members from Stark County.
“We’re fighting for the heritage of the Sauk trail,” he said, noting that many of his neighbors over the years have found Native American artifacts along the trail’s outline. “It’s about Native American history.”