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ZBA recommends wind energy noise standards

After hearing testimony both in favor of keeping current noise restrictions in place and pleas to make them more strict, the Piatt County zoning board of appeals has recommended staying with existing code when it comes to allowable noise at large scale wind energy developments.

That ties the local ordinance with Illinois Pollution Control Board standards, which noise experts say caps noise at about 46 dBa (A-weighted decibels) when measured outside of adjacent homes.

ZBA members on Nov. 18 did unanimously approve the addition of a good neighbor clause to the noise portion of the large-scale wind energy conversion ordinance.

“Homes and families that are affected by wind turbine noise levels shall be given due consideration as it relates to the health and enjoyment of the property of those individuals,” proposed ZBA board member Jim Harrington. The clause was added to the wind ordinance, contingent upon county board approval.

Several people asked the zoning board to cap the noise level at 30 dBa, citing studies that recommended that noise limit.

The amendment to the zoning code now goes before the county board on Dec. 9. The county board had previously sent a 30 dBa noise limit from the ZBA back for reconsideration.

Apex Clean Energy last year announced the Goose Creek Wind project, which proposes a 120-turbine wind farm in northern Piatt County, but has not yet applied for permits.

“I’d like to personally thank the zoning board for their thoughtful deliberation of the evidence presented over the past year. We were glad to see that after careful consideration, the ZBA chose to follow the evidence-based standards for sound set by the Illinois Pollution Control Board,” said Apex Senior Development Manager Alan Moore.

“This decision keeps Piatt County’s ordinance in line with neighboring counties, and helps maintain the possibility of safe renewable energy development here in Piatt,” he added.

But Ted Hartke, who moved out of his Vermilion County home near a different wind project, said the low level noise kept his family of four awake most nights and forced them to move.

He chided the ZBA after the meeting for its decision.

“The Piatt County board and ZBA has let the Apex wind energy company use private residences, even the inside of private bedrooms, as their wind turbine noise easement abatement areas without any compensation,” he said, claiming the good neighbor clause will be unenforceable.

“Gullible and weak board members have given away impacted properties as free easements. It will be too late when many of the rural residents realize they are the victims of a land grab,” said Hartke.

Apex and its opponents disagreed at the meeting on whether wind turbines and adjacent homes could be good neighbors, and also on what experts say research concludes about the impact of noise on public health.

Claudia Coil of Mansfield cited an Australian study that recommended capping allowable noise in the 30 dBa range, saying any more could cause heart issues, insomnia and other health-related issues.

“Not everyone exposed to wind turbines will develop symptoms, but those with preexisting conditions – and we’re quite familiar with that term with COVID – such as the elderly and children could be particularly susceptible,” said Coil in referencing the study.

She also said that, since comprehensive noise studies are rare, the distance between wind turbines and homes should be increased in order to better ensure public safety.

But neurologist Dr. Jeffrey Ellensbogen recommended a different study, one done in 2016 by Health Canada that he said included the largest sample size when it comes to the effect of noise on neighbors of wind turbines.

“I can appreciate the concern for health,” Ellesbogen told the ZBA. But he added that “they were not able to find a single health effect within that sound range that was associated with wind turbine noise.”

Acoustical consultant Mike Hankard, who studied the noise issue for Apex, said the IPCB standards are already one of the most restrictive in the United States, and that the estimated 46 dBa it requires outside of homes will likely meet neighbor concerns inside their homes.

“The Illinois Pollution Control Board limits will meet that inside the home,” he said. “Once you meet the limits outside, it will meet the 30 inside.”

But Hartke said his personal experience differed when he lived about 1,665 feet from wind turbines in Vermilion County. He claimed the Health Canada study looked at much smaller windmills than are in use today, and that wind companies sometimes reach settlements with neighbors – up to and including purchasing homes – when there are complaints.

He also said other experts, specifically mentioning Champaign-based acoustical consultant Dr. Paul Schomer, recommend lower noise allowances than IPCB standards.

Hartke felt the evidence – especially when it comes to low frequency rumbling he said affected his famly most – added up to a good case for lower dBa levels.

“This was a perfectly fine house that we had. I would still live there if it wasn’t for IPCB regulations not being suitable for wind turbines. Don’t go along with what the wind companies are telling you,” said Hartke. “Put a nice low level in there so people can sleep in their homes.”

Enforcement of noise standards was also an issue of contention. One audience member claimed the IPCB had been “defunded,” but Apex officials pointed out that they were still hearing cases, so are apparently still in business.

The Pollution Control Board website does indicate that “due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is limited access to the board’s offices,” and points people to electronic filing techniques to lodge complaints.

Hankard felt the county would likely be the first level to hear noise complaints, since it would be the one issuing use and building permits.

That was the case in 2013 when the county board upheld a permit that allowed a Cisco-area farmer to operate a restricted landing area for cropdusting airplanes. Noise and other complaints prompted the review by the county board.

ZBA board member Jerry Edwards noted that, since the 30 dBa limit was sent back for review, it was his opinion that the county board was basically saying, “we don’t like what you’ve done, we want it different. Give us something that we will pass.”

Harrington understood, but added “we still also have to be objective, not just to appease them.”

The vote to keep standards in sync with IPCB standards, with the addition of the good neighbor clause, was approved 3-0 by the ZBA.

Wind applicants must also hire a “qualified professional” to ensure sound requirements will be met, which was already in the WECS ordinance.

Other comments made at the ZBA session:

– Tui Lynch, a member of IBEW Local 601, said union workers have built wind farms, and noted that several members of the IBEW local live close to turbines. In polling those homeowners, he said “none of the members that we have spoken to have seen any of their property values decrease due to a wind turbine farm installation.

– “They (Apex) are not concerned about our safety. They just want our money,” said audience member Dave Oliger.

– “The decision here is, are you going to regulate wind development to what can be done safely as what we are requesting, or will you pass extreme restrictions banning the development and deny the economic opportunity for the county budget, county residents, county businesses,” said Moore.

– “There have been several times in history where we have thought something was good, and found out later it was not so good. Examples would be asbestos. We thought it was a great thing to put in walls and stuff, and then years later we’re cleaning it up because of the problems caused by it,” said audience member Chris Stillabower, who added the dangers of continued X-ray exposure was also determined after they were already being used.

– “Good and effective governance requires predictable, understandable, evidence-based rule-making processes that minimize conflicts between the public and protect public welfare,” said Robert Scott, the executive director of Power Up Illinois “In that spirit, I encourage the board to adopt these sound level limits that are in line with the standards working across the state today (IPCB standards).”

– “All of the negative effects of these incredibly ugly monstrosities have been well documented, including on health, property values, mortality of birds,” said Monticello residents Huey and Kate Freeman via email testimony. “From an aesthetic standpoint, we think this is an afront to America the Beautiful in our lifetime.”

– “I want to simply comment on what a great community partner Goose Creek Wind has been over the last couple years for the Piatt County Mental Health Center,” said Mental Health Center Director Tony Kirkman, who also submitted testimony by email. “Through their financial partnership we have been able to provide resources to both our staff and consumers that may not have otherwise been possible without their direct involvement.”

– In opposition of APEX, Gary and Melissa Kambic stated by email that “we truly believe in our cause and cannot be bought off.”

– “These windmills post no health concerns, no matter what they tell you. They just don’t want to look at the darned things,” said Barbara Lamont, also by email.

– “It is of utmost importance that we have data, science and the best information to back up our county’s decision. On the topic of sound, the best available support and backup we have currently comes from the Illinois Pollution Control Board sound emission standards,” said Amanda Pankau in a statement submitted by email.