CLINTON – Construction could begin next spring on DeWitt County’s first wind farm, though several procedural steps remain before the project can get underway.
The DeWitt County Board cleared the way for the project, Alta Farms II, by narrowly approving a special use permit to allow the project in three northwestern townships near Waynesville and Wapella. The vote came despite strong objections from some neighboring property owners, and their attorney said Wednesday that some were considering a lawsuit.
The project by Tradewind Energy would allow for up to 66 towers that could be no higher than 599 feet.
“Alta Farms has enjoyed significant community support since it was initially proposed nearly 10 years ago, and we are excited to begin construction and put hundreds of local residents to work on what will be a first-rate wind farm that is an asset to the entire community,” said Tom Swierczewski, lead developer of the project. “While we are proud of the project we will be building, we also know there are continued concerns from some, and promise to work in good faith toward a long-term mutually beneficial partnership with the entire community.”
Meeting draws opponents
An application for the project was rejected by the county board in April 2019, with members saying it was incomplete and had too many unanswered questions. That vote had been 6-5 with one abstention – Cole Ritter, who lives in the district where the project is planned. The abstention had essentially counted as a “no” vote.
Ritter was absent from Tuesday’s meeting. He could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
None of the remaining 11 board members changed from the positions they took in last year’s vote. Voting in favor were Chairman Dave Newberg, Camille Redman, Lance Reece, Christy Pruser, Scott Nimmo and Jay Wickenhauser. Opposing the measure were Terry Ferguson, Nate Ennis, Melonie Tilley, Dan Matthews and Travis Houser.
Tilley noted before the vote that the Regional Planning Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals had previously forwarded the application with negative recommendations. “Both of those boards voted to deny twice,” she said. “We appoint those boards and they spent hundreds of hours listening to testimony and studying. I think we should listen to them.”
Board members who voted in favor of the motion did not speak before the vote about their reasons for doing so. Newberg couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday.
About 250 people attended Tuesday night’s meeting, held outside on the Square in downtown Clinton to allow for social distancing. Many were opponents of the project.
Andrea Rhoades, a neighboring property owner who has led an organized effort against the project, said the group was disappointed with what she called “complete disregard” for local ordinances and the recommendation of the county’s Zoning Board of Appeals.
She also criticized Ritter for his absence: “Mr. Ritter shirked his elected duties and betrayed his constituents who made it clear they did not want this project,” she said after the meeting.
Some property owners are considering filing a lawsuit, but no final decisions have been made, said Phil Luetkehans, a managing partner of Luetkehans, Brady, Garner & Armstrong LLC. Any lawsuit related to the board’s approval would have to be filed within 90 days of the decision.
He said he represents several property owners in the affected area around the future wind farm site. Luetkehans said major issues with approval of the wind farm construction include a negative effect on property values, health and safety of residents and the granting of a special use permit without a decommissioning plan. He also said some conditions requested by Tradewind Energy and enacted by DeWitt County are violations of state law.
Swierczewski said company officials had worked hard to satisfy any issues.
In a written statement Wednesday, Swierczewski said work on public roads could start later this year. Major construction activities for the wind farm infrastructure are planned for next spring.
He said the company is preparing applications for necessary building permits. Tradewind also plans to seek county board approval for a finalized decommissioning plan, or a plan to remove the wind turbines and return the land to its natural state.
A draft of the decommissioning plan was included in the special use permit application that the board approved. He said the plan would be completed and returned to the board once a final turbine type and other design elements are finalized.
“The plan guarantees restoration of original soil and vegetation conditions, removal of all structures and associated debris, and confirmation of all financial resources needed to decommission the project,” Swierczewski said.