LACON – A Marshall County Zoning Board of Appeals hearing that ended in a tie vote on a resurrected wind farm project in the southeastern corner of the county illustrated the potential such projects have to transform the financial landscape of areas where they’re located.
The 2-2 vote, with Chairman Kyle Schumacher abstaining, means that the County Board will decide whether to issue a special use permit for the Bennington Wind Project at its Nov. 14 regular meeting without a ZBA recommendation.
But the three-hour hearing provided extensive information on the expected economic impact of the project proposed by Minonk Stewardship Wind LLC, which would consist of 33 turbines located in Bennington Township southeast of Toluca. In this case, that impact has prompted a local school district to formally endorse the project and another in an earlier stage of development.
The plan is a joint project of Chicago-based Akuo Energy USA and Stewardship Energy LLC of Tiskilwa. The developers had secured a permit for 16 turbines back in 2010, but that project lay largely dormant until a new meteorological tower was installed last year as the beginning of a new application process.
The new, larger project is expected to create the equivalent of 148 full-time jobs during its construction period and then 11 long-term positions, according to a presentation. And based on the state’s standardized assessment methods, its 2.8-megawatt turbines would generate a total of about $1.1 million in new property tax revenues the first year of operation and $22.4 million over its 30-year life, according to calculations presented by Illinois State University economist David Loomis.
The biggest beneficiary of that windfall would be the Fieldcrest School District, which would receive an estimated $718,000 in new revenue the first year and $14.3 million over the 30 years, according to Loomis’ estimates. That revenue would reduce the impact on taxpayers of expenses incurred in extensive building repair or replacement that will be necessary in the near future, Superintendent Daniel Oakley told the ZBA.
“That’s the school district’s primary interest in seeing these wind farms go in,” Oakley said.
In fact, the Fieldcrest School Board has passed a resolution stating formal support for wind farms that locate within the district, which also extends into LaSalle, Livingston, and Woodford Counties. Besides the tax revenues, it cited other reasons including “educational opportunities for the students of the district, short and long-term job opportunities created by the wind farms; and support and promotion of sustainable and renewable energy sources.”
As for other taxing districts, Marshall County’s general fund would see an infusion of about $162,000 in the first year, while Bennington Township and the Toluca-Rutland Fire District would each get about $85,000 more.
Among the more vocal opponents at the hearing were ZBA member Rick Roeing and county board member Rebecca Donna, who are married and live near the project area. Donna, who did not identify herself as a board member, expressed such concerns as possible health effects, impact on wildlife, and loss of property values.
“I’m strongly urging the (ZBA) to not approve (the permit),” she said, drawing applause from other opponents.
Donna has a long history of opposing wind farms in that area. She spoke out against the 2010 permit as a private citizen and then later voted against granting a permit for the new project’s meteorological tower as a then-member of the ZBA.
Contradicting some of Donna’s statements was Rhonda Gordon, whose family owns land that would have a turbine. She said she lives in Champaign County near a 133-turbine installation that has four towers within a mile of her home, and neither she nor neighbors have experienced those negative effects, she said.
Gordon said the wind farm in her area has not kept residents away, as two new homes have been built there recently and two others were sold quickly after coming on the market. And the tax revenues have been a boon to small, struggling school districts in the area, she added.
“This really helped them. It really made a big impact for them,” Gordon said.
Voting to recommend approval of the permit were Dennis Bogner and John Murphy, while Roeing and Allan Toepper were opposed. Schumacher did not state a reason for abstaining during the hearing, but he said later that he felt he “didn’t have enough background information.”
Schumacher said he had missed an earlier meeting that included discussion of ordinance amendments that were enacted after the Bennington project application had been filed. They included making some setback requirements stricter for future projects than the standards for the pending one.
Zoning administrator Patrick Sloan emphasized during the hearing that those changes “don’t apply to this project,” as both State’s Attorney Paul Bauer and an outside attorney had advised that the standards in effect would be those at the time of application, not the time of the hearing. Even so, “That was the reason” that Schumacher abstained, he said after the hearing.
If approved, the project would probably begin construction in September, 2020 and start operating in late summer or early fall of ’21, said project manager Nick Gebauer. It would be the second wind farm in Marshall County, which hosts 60 of the 100 turbines in the Camp Grove Wind Farm that also includes 40 in neighboring Stark County.
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