The Monroe County Comprehensive Plan Committee met Wednesday for the first time since the coronavirus hit five months ago and discussed the need to get back on track revising the county’s wind-farm ordinance.
The complicated task is an important one because it could affect a plan by Columbia businessman and developer Joe Koppeis to produce electricity by placing dozens of 600-foot-tall, 2,400-ton wind turbines on Mississippi River bluffs along a 15-mile stretch between Valmeyer and Fults.
Controversy over the plan last summer prompted the county’s Board of Commissioners to put an 18-month moratorium on special-use-permit applications for wind farms to allow time for review of its 2012 Wind Energy Conversion Ordinance in light of changes in technology and health and safety standards.
“The committee had a few meetings prior to COVID, where people brought in new materials, and we’re trying to merge and approve what we think should be added to or subtracted from the ordinance,” Zoning Administrator Chris Voelker said Thursday.
Any committee recommendations on revisions must go through the Monroe County Planning Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals before the County Board votes. The moratorium is set to end in February.
Voelker said he isn’t sure when the next committee meeting will be held.
“We might get more restrictions next week,” he said, referring to Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s promise to take further action to stop an upward trend in metro-east coronavirus cases.
Developer isn’t giving up
The wind farm would be a $220 million project of Southern Illinois Wind, a company formed by Koppeis. He hasn’t yet applied for a Monroe County special-use permit, but he explained his concept at a County Board meeting in August of 2018. Most people in a standing-room-only crowd were against it.
In the past year, Koppeis has largely put planning on hold because of personal and business-related challenges.
“Life has thrown us a lot of curve balls,” he said Thursday.
In April of 2019, Koppeis’ house was struck by lightning and gutted by a fire that also killed his mother-in-law, Carol Saylor, 86. He and his wife, Patricia, have been helping to care for grandchildren since the death of their 34-year-old son, Justin, in March of 2018.
More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted Koppeis’ shopping centers and hotel, operated under his flagship company, Admiral Parkway.
“Nothing has been done (on the wind farm recently), but I’m not giving up,” he said. “I’ve never given up on anything in my life. … We’ve had a tough few years, and we’ve just got to pick ourselves back up and go again.”
Coalition gets involved
After Koppeis spoke at the County Board meeting in 2018, wind-farm opposition spread on social media, with a public Facebook group called “Save the Bluffs – Say NO to Joe” attracting nearly 800 followers.
Members of a grassroots organization known as Monroe County Fair Wind Coalition gave a presentation on the potential safety risks of wind farms to the county’s Planning Commission in April of 2019 and asked for the Wind Energy Conversion Ordinance to be strengthened to protect area residents.
That prompted the County Board to place the moratorium on special-use permits and launch the ordinance-revision process.
“The wind coalition’s working group, all 10 members, have been significantly involved in this, and we’ve made a series of recommended changes,” member Pen DauBach, of Fults, said Friday.
The coalition has developed an online network with about 1,200 supporters, she said.
Speakers for the Planning Commission presentation addressed possible mechanical failures with wind turbines; noise; “shadow flickers” from turbine blades and other health effects; karst geology in the bluffs; other environmental issues such as wildlife and groundwater; property values; roads and other infrastructure; and “setbacks,” the required distances between turbines and homes, other structures and roadways.
“I wish I could tell you that the (ordinance-revision) process was further up the line,” DauBach said Friday. “But it’s a long, deliberative, thinking-through process.”
Action expected by 2021
Koppeis has been promoting the idea of a wind farm in Monroe County for more than a decade.
He 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, a former Valmeyer limestone mine now used for underground storage and refrigeration that he owns.
“In addition to that, Valmeyer School District needs tax revenue,” Koppeis told the BND in 2018. “They’ve always struggled, and the wind turbines would pay real-estate taxes in the amount of about $40,000 a year per turbine.”
Environmental groups generally support renewable energy, but some in Southern Illinois have opposed Koppeis’ project.
They argue that up to 50 wind turbines, nearly as tall as the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, along the bluffs would diminish the area’s natural beauty and harm sensitive geologic features that provide habitat to 16 endangered species.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources conducted an ecological study related to the wind farm in 2018 and published a report that made 19 recommendations. The first was for the developer to consider a different location.
Koppeis has asked for patience from the public while his staff addresses environmental concerns and determines suitable locations for turbines. He predicts support for the project will grow when all the facts come out.
“I think it’s a good thing,” he said Thursday. “It’s something I want to do. I just haven’t had the time or energy to pursue it (in the past year), to be honest. But I do fully plan to pursue it, certainly in 2021 if we don’t get it started before.”
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