How far is far enough?
That’s one of the main questions facing the members of the Morgan County Board as they formulate a new wind farm ordinance to replace the one they passed in 2009. The board has asked for public comments through the first week of June on the proposal, which among other things increases the minimum distance that wind turbines must be located from residences.
“We’ve looked at many ordinances throughout central Illinois as we think about putting the best document forward,” said Board Chairman Brad Zeller. “Our old ordinance has a 1,000-foot setback and in this particular ordinance we have raised that to 1,500 feet for non-participating landowners. … Whether there’s any more room there or not, that will be up for discussion.”
The setbacks in the proposed ordinance are greater than those required by area counties. The proposed ordinance also sets a turbine system height limit of 600 feet from the tip of the blade to the ground, a 100-foot increase from the current ordinance.
The timing of the new ordinance is critical because Apex Clean Energy has been working with local officials and private landowners on the possible construction of Lincoln Land Wind, a 300-megawatt wind energy project with a large number of turbines that could forever alter the landscape in southeastern Morgan County between Alexander and Franklin.
Zeller said the high-voltage power lines that Ameren recently constructed through the the region sparked a sudden interest in Morgan County from wind developers, and it also made the county board realize a new ordinance was necessary because a lot has changed in the wind industry since 2009. The possible wind farm and the county rules that pertain to it have been a hot topic as board members continue to gather input on the proposed ordinance.
“There’s a passion with a group of people and those are the ones we receive most of the correspondence from,” Zeller said. “Some are just dead-set against it no matter what, and then there are some who would be more inclined to compromise on the setbacks.”
Mike Woodyard lives right in the middle of the proposed wind farm project in a fifth-generation family home and has formed the Ad Hoc Citizens Committee for Property Rights.
“My concerns are that the ordinance doesn’t go far enough to protect the homeowners who already live here,” Woodyard said. “If we are going to introduce industrial activity into Morgan County, we need to do so in a way that protects everybody’s rights.”
Woodyard wants a 2,640-foot setback for wind turbines measured from the property line of a non-participating landowner, rather than the 1,500-foot setback measured from a home’s foundation as the ordinance proposes. He said the huge scale of wind turbines makes this measurement crucial.
“When you start talking about things that are 600 feet tall it’s hard for the mind to grasp. To put it into context, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis is 630 feet tall, and there’s only one Gateway Arch,” Woodyard said. “Try to picture 130 Gateway Arch-sized turbines scattered between Franklin and Alexander, and they will each have close to a three-acre blade sweep.”
“I pay property taxes to my property line, not my foundation,” Woodyard said. “They have 240 square miles to work with. Do we need to build them close to someone’s home? If I wanted to live in an industrial area, I’d move to an industrial area.”
The Ad Hoc Citizens Committee for Property Rights has submitted several opinions about the proposed ordinance to the county board, including a legal one drawn up by a law firm that states “the municipalities, cities, and villages of Morgan County should have the right to control the use of their 1.5 mile zoning radius and determine for themselves if they want to site industrial wind turbines starting at their corporate limit.”
Other residents have provided county board members with a different viewpoint. Mick Johnson is a rural Franklin landowner who has 12 fields that he said could potentially have wind turbines on them, including one field that is just outside his back door.
“I’ve been to a few meetings and spoken in favor of the new ordinance,” Johnson said. “The parts that pertain to myself as a landowner, I have no problems with it. I think it’s very favorable for the farmers. I think it was well thought-out for the entire county.”
Johnson said the existing ordinance was primarily written for landowners who are participating in wind farm projects, whereas the new ordinance better addresses the issues faced by non-participants.
“I know the people who are against it want farther setbacks, but the 1,500-foot setback for non-participating homeowners is a compromise,” Johnson said. “Both the people who are for it and the ones who are against it must realize that they’ve got to compromise on this.”
Wind turbine leases can run up to $8,000 per year for each turbine, according to the Landmark Dividend and Windustry websites. Lincoln Land Wind would not say what they may offer participating Morgan County landowners, but acknowledged the project could not move forward without the voluntary support of local landowners who wish to host wind facilities on their property.
The company also has no official estimate on the number of turbines planned for Morgan County since that number will depend on the county’s final wind ordinance and its setback and other requirements, according to Public Engagement Manager Helen Humphreys. But Apex feels the 1,500 foot setback being proposed is more than adequate.
“Morgan County’s proposed ordinance requires turbines to be constructed no less than 1,500 feet away from the center point of a non-participating home, which is more than sufficient to meet state sound standards,” Humphreys said. “The 1,500-foot setback from a non-participating home will extend equally in all directions, creating a 3,000 foot diameter circle in which no turbine can be constructed.”
Could a stricter ordinance with greater setbacks endanger the Lincoln Land Wind project in Morgan County?
“The simple answer is yes,” Humphreys said. “We strive to work closely with local planning officials to help them understand how far they can take their siting restrictions without becoming so restrictive that it becomes infeasible to build or operate a wind farm in the area.”
The Lincoln Land Wind website lists the project benefits as $42 million in new tax revenue for Morgan County over the life of the project, $3 million in annual lease payments to private landowners, hundreds of construction jobs, and approximately 24 full-time local jobs for operations and maintenance.
Illinois ranks sixth in the nation for installed wind power generation capacity, according to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). The AWEA says the state has more than 2,600 operational wind turbines at more than 50 wind farms, and during 2018 wind energy provided more than six percent of all in-state electricity production.
Illinois made changes in 2016 to its Renewable Portfolio Standard, the law dictating the use of renewable energy, and now requires that utilities and retail electric suppliers generate 25 percent of their electricity sales from renewable energy sources like wind, solar and biomass energy by 2025.
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