PAXTON — The Ford County Board made clear Thursday that its No. 1 priority in establishing new rules for wind farms is to ensure the health, safety and welfare of its citizens — and not to ensure that more wind farms are built.
With 10 of its 12 members present, the board voted 9-1 in favor of a proposal to restrict wind turbines from being built any closer than 2,250 feet from a property line. The measure, part of a larger package of ordinance revisions that will be up for approval once finalized, is designed to protect rural residents from the low-frequency noise and shadow flicker, among other nuisances, that turbines can create.
But the measure also is considered so restrictive that the developers of three proposed wind farms in Ford County may be forced to pull the plug on their projects, as each of them told the board after the vote.
"I understand the desire to compromise and to do something that works for everyone, but this is not it," said Michael Cressner of Orion Renewable Energy Group, a firm based in Oakland, Calif., that has been developing the Elliott Wind Farm in south-central Ford County.
"I hope that there is a future for wind (farms) in Ford County; I just don’t know if we’re going to be able to develop that project here. So, I wish you all luck in progressing Ford County, and I hope that Orion has a future here, but tonight made it a lot more difficult, if not impossible."
‘I’m living it’
Under Ford County’s existing wind-farm rules, which were implemented 10 years ago prior to two wind farms being built in the county, turbines could be sited as close as 1,000 feet from a home, as opposed to a property line.
And some rural residents — including a few county board members — have experienced problems as a result.
"I’m living it, and (board member) Gene (May of rural Paxton) is living it," said board member Tom McQuinn, whose rural Paxton home is about 2,500 feet from a turbine within the Pioneer Trail Wind Farm. "So I don’t need somebody to tell me what all the statistics are (regarding the noise and shadow flicker turbines can cause). I see it. I hear it."
McQuinn and May, along with several other board members, said they felt a 3,250-foot setback from property lines would be the most appropriate protection, as a number of concerned rural residents had requested.
However, they said they would be willing to support a lesser setback of 2,250 feet from property lines under the condition the board also approve separate regulations for noise as suggested by the board’s zoning committee a week earlier. They said they would be willing to accept such a compromise because they realize a 3,250-foot property-line setback could make building a wind farm too difficult.
"At least at 2,250, it should be a buildable thing," McQuinn said.
Under the measure approved by the board, McQuinn noted, developers could negotiate with landowners to have them sign waivers to allow turbines to be built as close as 1,000 feet to a home.
Aubry in dissent
Meanwhile, board member Chuck Aubry of Gibson City said he felt the 2,250-foot setback from property lines would still be too restrictive to develop a wind farm. Aubry said he was concerned the county and its schools, as well as farmers who intend to lease their land to wind-farm operators, could lose out on some needed revenue if such a setback were to be implemented.
"I personally could not vote for this," Aubry told his colleagues, suggesting instead that two separate setbacks be put in place in regards to property lines and homes.
Wind-farm developers had requested a similar measure as Aubry — specifically, a 2,250-foot setback from homes to go along with a setback from property lines equal to two times a turbine’s tip height (the equivalent of 1,000 feet).
Board member Cindy Ihrke of rural Roberts, however, noted that under no circumstances should a wind farm be putting residents’ health, safety or welfare at risk by exposing them to unwanted nuisances. The only way to ensure that happens is to implement a property-line setback, she said, because a setback from homes would still allow a turbine’s noise or shadow flicker to intrude upon a property.
Ihrke noted that a landowner has the right to use all of his or her property without being exposed to such nuisances — or, alternatively, negotiate payments with a wind-farm developer for putting up with those nuisances.
"If somebody isn’t signing a contract or offered to sign a contract (to have their property leased to the operator of a wind farm), personally I don’t feel it’s fair to force them to live with something they never agreed to when they purchased their own property," said Ihrke. "I think any closer than (2,250 feet from a property line) you’d be putting people at risk without their permission.
"By setting a property-line setback, you are putting the power of negotiation back into the hands of the people who are going to live within the project (area). ... Let it be their personal choice (to negotiate a waiver). ... Why can’t we trust the people to figure it out on their own and let them be their own leaders?"
Board member Tim Nuss of rural Roberts said he, too, would support nothing but a property-line setback of at least 2,250 feet.
"I find this whole discussion of ‘property lines versus structure’ so obscene it’s not even funny," Nuss said. "I’ve worked very hard to maintain my property, and if anybody thinks they’re going to infringe upon my rights on my property, we’ve got a problem — we’ve got a big-time problem.
"I think my property line means something, and it should to everyone out there."
Wind farms give warning
In addition to Orion Renewable Energy Group, two other developers warned the board after it approved the 2,250-foot setback that they may not be able to build their respective wind farms if such a restrictive measure ends up being put in place.
Those same developers gave the board a similar admonishment in December, after a straw poll showed all 12 members would not support a setback of less than 1,640 feet from property lines.
At that time, the developers had been asking for no greater than a 1,500-foot setback — and not from property lines but instead from homes.
In urging the board to reconsider, Jody Law, representing Houston-based Pattern Energy Group, said the 2,250-foot property-line setback "really does put us in an extremely difficult spot."
"It won’t work for us," said Law, whose company has been developing the Heritage Prairie Wind Farm in the Roberts and Piper City area. "At 2,250 from a property line, there’s a number of neighboring landowners that can just kill one turbine (by refusing to sign a waiver), and that’s the reality. So from a practical perspective, it puts these projects in serious jeopardy."
Attorney Mark Gershon, representing Apex Clean Energy, spoke on behalf of Erin Baker, senior development manager for the Charlottesville, Va.-based firm, which is developing the Ford Ridge Wind Farm in the Gibson City and Sibley area.
Baker was unable to be in attendance, but Gershon said he relayed a message to her about the board’s decision regarding setbacks during the meeting. According to Gershon, Baker responded by saying that "even if she could site a few turbines with the proposed 2,250 property-line setback, she’d never be able to achieve the economies of scale necessary to build a full wind farm."
"To force a property owner or a wind-farm developer to get 10 property owners to (sign waivers to) approve putting a single turbine up ... really isn’t realistic if your goal is actually to allow wind farms to develop," Gershon said.
‘There will be interest’
Ford County resident Dean Dillon said he doubts the larger setback will mean no more wind farms come to the county, though.
"I spoke with a friend of mine who is a practicing engineer about our situation (in Ford County)," Dillon said. "He pointed out to me that when a company considers a wind farm, they not only consider the channel of the wind, the frequency of the wind, the power of the wind, but because the turbines are so high and require such a huge concrete anchor to stabilize them, they also have to consider the substrata — the density of the soil, the rock, so on and so forth. And he pointed out to me that one reason Ford County is so popular with wind (energy) is that many areas that have the (same) wind (resources) don’t have the (same) density and the support in the soil to support the turbines. But because we’re lucky enough to have both, many wind companies are interested in us.
"And the comment that (the engineer) made was, considering the number of turbines we already have and the interest that is being shown (by developers), he would wager that if the companies that are showing interest now left because of property-line measures or because of the length of setback, that they would probably be replaced by other companies as long as the federal government continues to subsidize wind (energy).
"He said, ‘Don’t dilute yourself into thinking these are the only companies that will ever be interested in wind in Ford County.’ He said, ‘Apparently you have ideal conditions, and that’s going to attract attention."
Second time’s a charm
It actually took two separate motions and two separate roll calls for the board to reach the supermajority — or nine votes — it needed to approve the 2,250-foot property-line setback.
The board initially voted 8-2 in favor of the proposal, with Aubry and board member Randy Ferguson of Gibson City in dissent.
"To me, the debate is ‘reasonable versus extreme,’" Ferguson said prior to his vote.
However, after some further discussion, the board took another vote on the same proposal, with Ferguson changing his "no" vote to a "yes" vote to give the board the nine votes it needed.
The board then voted 10-0 to approve a separate ordinance change to restrict turbines from being any taller than 500 feet. Some wind-farm developers had been asking for a 600-foot height limit, but the board was concerned that too little was known about the potential negative effects such taller turbines could create.
Absent from Thursday’s special meeting were board members Bernadette Ray of Gibson City and Jason Johnson of rural Paxton.
State’s Attorney Andrew Killian said the Illinois Zoning Code requires that the board have a supermajority, or three-quarters, of its members voting in favor of any of the ordinance changes because a written protest has been filed by a municipality in the county.
The village of Roberts approved a resolution in December protesting the recommended setbacks and turbine height limitations that were approved by the county’s zoning board of appeals in November. The village board requested the county instead implement a 3,250-foot setback from property lines and a maximum turbine height of 500 feet.
Another meeting set
The board scheduled a meeting of its zoning committee for 9 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 31, in the first-floor courtroom at the courthouse in Paxton to continue discussing revisions to the wind-energy ordinance. The meeting will be open to the public.
Among topics expected to be discussed are new decommissioning requirements for turbines and a proposal to allow unincorporated communities — such as Clarence, Garber, Guthrie, Harpster, Perdueville or Stelle — to regulate the siting of wind turbines within 1 1/2 miles of their boundaries.