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Piatt ZBA holds steady on wind noise, setback amendments

The Piatt County zoning board of appeals has decided to stick with more stringent setback and noise rules in proposed zoning amendments while it gathers more information on proposed amendments to the county wind farm ordinance.

That came after about three hours of testimony before the ZBA on Feb. 27. It is all part of a process to amend the current 2009 zoning code in regards to wind projects of more than 500 kilowatts, in anticipation of Apex Clean Energy filing permits for its proposed Goose Creek Wind project in northern Piatt County.

“I feel much more comfortable leaving it as is without any more input today,” said ZBA member Jim Harrington on Thursday, speaking on a proposed change to increase the allowable turbine-generated noise at neighboring properties from 30 to 50 decibels. Noise could also not be above Illinois Pollution Control Board standards, which one expert said translates into about 46 decibels, equivalent to a moderate rainfall.

“With no more information than what I have today, my feeling is we leave it as is,” said Harrington. “It would take more research in my opinion to change this to narrow it, in my opinion.”

Ted Hartke told the zoning board a story about his family’s former home in Vermillion County, where he said low frequency noise issues from neighboring windmills caused sleep deprivation for his family of four, prompting them to sell their rural house and move.

“For us it was about the noise,” Hartke said of the wind turbines that were ab about 1,600 feet from his house.

He noted that low frequency vibrations can meet noise guidelines and still cause issues.

“The rumbling and thumping is much more disturbing,” he added, noting it is not the level of noise, but the consistency of it.

“You can’t get away from it. It’s not a dripping faucet you can fix. It’s maddening when you can’t sleep, and it’s just terrible,” said Hartke, who thought the maximum noise limit should be in the 34 decibel range.

Noise expert Mike Hankard responded that the 50 db limit would actually not be allowed in the Piatt County proposal.

“The way the ordinance is written, the draft ordinance as it is written says you have to meet 50 and you have to meet the Illinois Pollution Control Board. So you’re not passing anything that allows a wind company to go above the Illinois Pollution Control Board limits,” he stated.

Hartke also presented documents he said showed one of his former neighbors’ home value dropping $25,000 in two years after turbines were erected.

Appraiser and Apex consultant Mike Moroos responded that, without the entire property report, a cause is hard to pinpoint.

“To verify that, we want to see a copy of both reports to see the analysis, to see the adjustments, to see what was done. My understanding is the only document he has only has page one of each report,” he said.

Setbacks

ZBA member Dan Larson also felt no further amendment proposals were needed at this time regarding setbacks between wind towers and property lines.

The ZBA last year had approved a setback ratio of 3.75 times the tower tip height or 1,600 feet from the edge of wind towers (whichever is greater), but the county board balked and sent it back to the zoning board for further study. One recommendation was to reduce that to 1.1 times the tip height or 1,600 feet, whichever is greater.

“In my opinion, I like the 3.75 (times) better than the 1.1. Just because we have properties with structures so close, maybe that’s not a feasible place to put a wind farm,” said Larson.

“That just seems awfully close,” ZBA member Jerry Edwards agreed on the 1.1 times option. He felt that a different number could be an option as the board continues its research.

Because the county board has not yet acted, even last fall’s amendments are not official, so the less stringent 2009 ordinance is still in effect. It requires a setback of one times the tower tip height to adjacent property lines and 1,000 feet from a tower to a primary structure. Allowable noise follows Illinois Pollution Control Board regulations.

“Thank you. This is the right decision for our community,” said Renee Nicholson to the zoning board on keeping more stringent suggestions.

On the other side of the issue was Amanda Pankau, who in the past has advocated for renewable energy – including wind – to be welcomed in the county. She thought the ZBA should consider sticking with 2009 guidelines until more research is done.

“I think the levels you have here (in the proposed amendments) are out of thin air and not based on science,” she said.

County Zoning Administrator Keri Nusbaum said they were based on sample ordinances from surrounding counties.

Apex spokesmen said it may be difficult to find suitable locations if setbacks are too far for a proposal they say would generate $65 million in tax revenue over 30 years.

“We just want a reasonable pathway to develop,” said Alan Moore of Apex Clean Energy.

They also feared a 30 decibel limit for noise – roughly equivalent to a whisper or quiet library – could be unattainable.

Some amendments proposed since the ZBA’s previous approval were passed on to the county board for its consideration. Those include 60 more days for complaints between the wind developer applicants to be resolved if mutually agreed upon by both parties. Without agreement, complaints need to be remedied with 120 days.

Another amendment mandates that aircraft lighting detection systems be ones approve by the FAA. previously, specific brands were listed.

DeLand-area farmer and pilot Travis Hermann expressed his opinion that windmills would make it harder for aerial application on crops.

“I really feel like this would be a detriment to farmers in the aerial application realm. It would be a detriment to ag pilots inside the footprint of the wind farm,” said Hermann. “This severely increases the hazards and risk to ag pilots who try to operate inside a wind farm.”

Other testimony

Among others testifying before the ZBA:

Valerie Swain: “I chose to live here because you feel peaceful in Piatt County. When I sit on my back patio in my $400,000 property I don’t see lights blinking, and I don’t see turbines and I’m not affected by the noise.”

Claudia Coil: She felt the health effects from wind generation will become known more through time. “I believe when the associated risk is more quantifiable, wind energy may eventually be held accountable” for health issues “caused by long-term exposure to wind turbine noise and emissions placed close to residents.”