The Monroe County Board of Commissioners has approved a moratorium on special-use-permit applications for wind farms, putting in limbo a controversial proposal to place up to 50 turbines along the Mississippi River bluffs between Valmeyer and Fults.
Board Chairman Robert “Bob” Elmore said commissioners voted Monday night to repeal the county’s 2012 Wind Energy Conversion Ordinance to give officials time to revise it. They will take into account safety concerns expressed by local residents and members of the Monroe County Fair Wind Coalition, a citizens group that made a presentation at a Planning Commission meeting in April.
“It’ll probably take 18 months to even get (the revision) done, so I don’t see wind mills in our future for a while,” Elmore said. “ … They have to go through all the steps again. I just don’t see it’s going to happen for a long time, probably never, down here. … But we did approve a two-megawatt solar collector out in Valmeyer. I don’t know if they’ll have the money to build it, but that has been approved.”
Elmore said he believes communities need to find alternatives to the limited supply of fossil fuels to produce energy, and he would like to see more homes and businesses install small solar or geothermal systems, but he doesn’t like the idea of giant solar or wind farms dominating the rural landscape.
“I think probably, in our county, it’s going to be more solar,” Elmore said. “I did say, ‘If you guys want to try and build (a wind farm) out by Hecker, it might be better than along the bluffs,’ because, you know, there’s 1,200 people in Valmeyer, and 1,100 people signed a petition against the wind farm. It’s not a very popular situation.”
Leaders of the Monroe County Fair Wind Coalition didn’t immediately return calls for comment Tuesday. In an email to supporters, they wrote:
“We’re a bit closer to ensuring that all Monroe Countians can continue to enjoy Fair Winds. … We’ll continue to work with our county’s decision-makers to make our current inadequate (wind energy) ordinance one that protects our citizens, our environment and our way of life.”
The revision process starts with the county’s Comprehensive Plan Committee, which will review the ordinance and make recommendations to the Planning Commission, which will make recommendations to the Zoning Board of Appeals, which will make recommendations to the County Board, according to Mike Fausz, zoning administrator.
Developer still hasn’t applied for permit
Joe Koppeis, a well-known Columbia businessman, has proposed a $220 million wind farm between Valmeyer and Fults, under the name Southern Illinois Wind. He was out of town and unavailable for comment Tuesday, according to Lorrie Maag, director of operations for his flagship company, Admiral Parkway.
Koppeis hasn’t actually applied for a special-use permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals to construct and operate a wind farm, but he’s been working on the project for more than a decade. In August of 2018, he explained his concept at a County Board meeting with a standing-room-only crowd.
The wind farm would consist of up to 50 turbines on a 15-mile stretch of leased farmland along the bluffs. Koppeis has said it would generate clean, renewable energy, create construction jobs and help persuade an environmentally-conscious tech giant such as Google, Facebook or Amazon to establish a data center at Rock City, an underground storage and refrigeration facility in Valmeyer that he owns.
“In addition to that, Valmeyer School District needs tax revenue,” Koppeis said during a BND interview 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 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.
But by that time, battle lines had been drawn. Opposition included a Facebook group with the name “Save the Bluffs – Say NO to Joe” that now has 722 followers. Support for the wind farm came from Laborer’s Local 196 because of construction jobs that would be created.
At April’s Planning Commission meeting, nine representatives of the Monroe County Fair Wind Coalition presented case studies and other research and showed dramatic photos of industrial wind farms, which they called “wind factories.” They argued that a stronger ordinance was needed to anticipate problems and protect residents.
Speakers addressed possible mechanical failures with wind turbines; noise; “shadow flickers” from turbine blades and other health effects; sensitive karst geology in the bluffs; other environmental issues, such as wildlife and groundwater; property values; the cost of improving and maintaining roads and other infrastructure; and “setbacks,” the required distances between turbines and homes, other structures and roadways.
“Our group is not categorically against wind farms,” said member Carl DauBach, of Fults. “But we want an ordinance that ensures public safety and the protection of property values.”
County gets OK for changing ordinance
At the April meeting, Planning Commission members declined to vote on a proposed wind-farm moratorium. They first wanted Monroe County States Attorney Chris Hitzemann to determine if they had the legal authority to change the existing ordinance without being sued by developers who had been using it as a planning guide.
“When you change rules in the middle of the game, you may subject yourself to liability,” Commission Chairman Carlyle Mueller said at the time.
But at Monday night’s County Board meeting, Hitzemann said officials could revise the ordinance, given that no special-use-permit applications had been submitted and officials had received new information that is pertinent.
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.
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.
DauBach, a retired Air Force colonel, was part of the ordinance-writing process seven years ago. At April’s Planning Commission meeting, 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.”