Wind turbines will be allowed a tip height of up to 625 feet in Piatt County if the county board agrees with recommendations made by the zoning board of appeals Dec. 17.
The 625-foot limit is an increase from the 500-foot one in the current wind ordinance for the county. It is less than the 675 that had been requested by Apex Clean Energy, which has announced plans to develop a 120-turbine wind farm in northern Piatt County.
ZBA members also voted to recommend a limit of 15 hours per year of shadow flicker affecting homes near wind turbines. Shadow flicker is not addressed in the current ordinance. Homeowners would be able to waive that limit if desired.
Regarding tip height, Apex officials said taller turbines mean less noise and a way to generate the same amount of energy with fewer machines, but opponents felt it was still too much to put on neighbors and the rural landscape.
County resident Dave Oliger, who lives south of Mansfield, said the towers and the additional lighting needed with higher blades is something he would rather not look at.
“Just the blight of having to look at them,” said Oliger, who said currently proposed turbine sites will be close to his home. “They’ll be seven times taller than the Galesville elevator.”
But Apex Senior Development Manager Alan Moore said higher turbines means less of them, less noise and fewer than half the towers needed to produce the same amount of electricity as the 475-foot turbines in the Apex development near Hoopeston.
“While the turbines are slightly larger, that difference should be compared to the installation of roughly half the number turbines, which would reduce the visual impact within the project area,” Moore said. “Slightly taller turbines means far fewer turbines installed in the project, less sound, less visual impacts and less acres taken out of production.”
ZBA members seemed favorable to the less-is-more proposal.
“I like the idea of fewer towers,” zoning board member Dan Larson said.
Board member Jim Harrington said it would likely depend on where the turbines were, noting the taller ones could be “more obtrusive,” depending on the layout.
“It depends on where they end up,” he said. “If it is a taller structure, it would be more obtrusive to non- and participating structures to that spot, wherever it is.”
Oliger said Federal Aviation Administration permits submitted by Apex propose locations of 75 of the towers and assume heights of up to 743 feet. He noted those towers alone are in the vicinity of 300 residential properties, and that taller towers require more lighting, up to 10 lights each if aircraft protection is required.
Moore responded that the FAA application is mandatory in the process, and that locations there are likely to change through time. He said the height is an “up-to” proposal required in the permit, and does not dictate how tall towers will be.
People testified in person, via Zoom and through emails at the ZBA session, both for and against wind farms in general.
Joe Horvat said in an email that wind is “clean energy for the future,” while the American Wind Energy group sent a data-laden letter touting the economic benefits to communities that host turbines.
It included figures that significant property taxes are generated by wind farms in adjacent counties, including some $53 million thus far in McLean County, as well as lesser amounts in Macon and Champaign counties of $6.4 million and $3.4 million in tax revenue so far, respectively.
That email added that advances in wind technology – including taller towers and wider blades – has “boosted wind project performance and lowered install costs.”
But others thought the economic benefit was not worth what they felt would be eyesores and potential health risks.
“The acceptable level of shadow flicker is none,” said Claudia Coil of Mansfield, claiming it can cause headaches, sleep deprivation, enhanced stress and even affect livestock in their grazing habits.
“Sleep and lack of stress should be basic rights,” she told the ZBA.
Studies she used in her research include ones from National Wind Watch, Mothers Against Wind Turbines and the National Center for Biotechnology Information.
Apex consultant Dr. Jeffrey Ellenbogen countered that Health Canada and Epilepsy Foundation studies disprove shadow flicker as a cause of health issues.
“This is an area that is known not to have health-related issues,” he told the zoning board, and said it wasn’t the flashing itself, but the frequency and intensity and other variables that “wind turbines bear no relationship with at all. They’re way too slow, the intensity is way too low, and they have never have and never will cause a seizure, even in someone with epilepsy and a known element of photosensitive seizures.”
Shadow flicker guidelines in surrounding counties vary from DeWitt’s zero-tolerance to many that currently do not address it at all. Many have a 30-hour-per-year limit.
ZBA Chairman Loyd Wax was concerned it could be “virtually impossible to pull off zero,” but Larson pointed out it was the policy adopted in DeWitt County.
Harrington felt the county should go with zero with the ability to allow more through the application process when more research is known.
Bruce Stoddard thought the 30 hours per year was reasonable since several counties have settled on that figure.
Moore said he understood the need for regulation, but that policies that are too strict would be a de facto ban on wind farms in Piatt County.
“The decision that you are facing here is, will you regulate wind development, or will you pass extreme restrictions banning wind development and deny economic opportunity for the county, the county budget and all the individuals who want to participate,” said Moore.
The board eventually settled in the middle with a 15-hour annual maximum on shadow flicker, with board member Kyle Lovin calling it a “happy medium.”
The county board will consider those ordinance amendments at its next regular meeting Jan. 13. In recent months, the board has endorsed ZBA setback recommendations of 1.3 times the tower tip height to the nearest primary structure, or 1,600 feet, whichever is greater. The same ratio was approved for setbacks from towers to adjacent property lines, or 1,000 feet, whichever is greater.
Noise limits have also been addressed, with the county opting to use Illinois Pollution Control Board standards, which experts have said limits noise to 46 dBa at adjacent homes.
The ZBA also recommended approval of a special-use permit for Debra Miner to construct a second home on a 5.054-acre parcel of Interchange Business-zoned land located at 760 East, 1700 North Road, Monticello.
The recommendation came after ZBA members were assured Miner would not affect a large tile that drains adjacent farm ground.
Miner was unsure if she would actually build the second home. She told the zoning board that renovations of a current house were becoming so costly due to the removal of old cisterns that it may lead to the construction of a new home on the property.