PAXTON — Ford County Board members spent two hours Thursday debating how to protect rural residents living around wind farms from nuisances that can be caused by wind turbines, such as low-frequency noise and shadow flicker.
It was not just a debate, either. There was actually some progress made Thursday in what has turned out to be more than a year-long process of revising the county’s ordinance regulating wind farms.
With three other board members in attendance, the board’s five-member zoning committee ultimately agreed to recommend the full board consider amending the ordinance to require that turbines’ noise levels remain within Illinois Pollution Control Board (IPCB) limits up to the property lines of any "non-participating" landowner — those who are not leasing their land to a wind farm operator.
The committee also agreed that if the county board receives a written complaint about a turbine exceeding noise limits and deems that complaint reasonable, it can hire an acoustic engineer to be paid for by the wind farm’s operator to determine whether the turbine is non-complaint. If it is found to be non-compliant, the wind farm operator would then be required to resolve the problem.
The county would be able to fine the wind farm operator $1,000 per day until the problem is resolved. And if the problem is not resolved within 60 days, the county would have the authority to decommission the turbine at the wind farm operator’s expense.
Board members Cindy Ihrke of rural Roberts and Ann Ihrke of rural Buckley suggested adding the language about noise limits. The Ihrkes said doing so would help address noise issues if the board ends up implementing setbacks allowing turbines to be any closer than 3,250 feet from non-participating landowners’ property lines.
The Ihrkes said they support 3,250-foot setbacks from property lines but realize such a restriction would likely make a wind farm too difficult to build. As a compromise, they said they would support a lesser setback of 2,250 feet from property lines as long as the noise-level limits are also implemented.
Board member Tom McQuinn of rural Paxton said he also supported a 2,250-foot setback from property lines with the suggested noise-level restriction, saying that "at anything less than 2,250 (feet), we’re not protecting the people who live out in the country."
"This whole section (on noise-level limits) would reduce your noise limits and it also would say that if someone had a problem, the engineer would come in to measure (the noise) and get data on that problem," Cindy Ihrke said. "So it sets kind of a rule on how to handle the situation."
Some board members questioned whether the noise-level limits, instead of applying to the non-participating landowners’ property line, should instead apply only to homes. However, Ann Ihrke pointed out that a non-participating landowner has a right to use all of his or her property without being exposed to such nuisances, and state law even says essentially just that.
There was also some debate about whether the county should require turbines to adhere to noise-level limits recommended by the World Health Organization instead of the IPCB.
The Ihrkes noted that various studies indicate the IPCB’s limits are not adequate to protect the health and well-being of residents. However, James Madson of Houston-based Pattern Energy Group, developer of the proposed Heritage Prairie Wind Farm in the Roberts and Piper City area, disagreed with that finding, saying the IPCB’s standards are among "the most stringent" and happen to be more restrictive than the World Health Organization’s, too.
The committee’s chairman, Randy Ferguson of Gibson City, said the committee should pick only one standard and use it. Ferguson said that because the IPCB’s regulations apply to any Illinois industry — not just the wind-energy industry — he feels they should be the most appropriate to use.
After the committee’s 83-minute discussion on noise limits, the committee began discussing regulations for what is known as shadow flicker. The committee, however, was unable to come to a consensus on those regulations.
The Ihrkes suggested the county restrict shadow flicker from being allowed at any time on a non-participating landowner’s property or on a primary structure. If shadow flicker is present, the turbine or turbines causing the problem would be shut down during periods when shadow flicker encroaches onto a non-participating property, the Ihrkes suggested.
Any landowner could waive the right to have no shadow flicker on their property, they noted.
Ann Ihrke said that if a non-participating landowner is surrounded by more than one turbine at too close of a distance, shadow flicker can be a real problem. Board member Gene May of rural Paxton said he lives 3,280 feet from a turbine but still experiences shadow flicker occasionally "as the sun moves north in the spring and summer."
McQuinn said a 2,250-foot setback from property lines of non-participating landowners should help address potential issues of shadow flicker, but he said "it’s not going to cure it."
Madson, meanwhile, said restricting shadow flicker at the property line would be "extremely restrictive" and would make building a wind farm difficult, if not impossible. Madson noted that obtaining waivers from non-participating landowners would be a challenge.
Madson suggested that instead of making it so no shadow flicker could be present at any time on a non-participating property, the county could restrict shadow flicker to being present no more than 30 hours per year anywhere on a non-participating property and zero hours per year on a non-participating residence.
Madson said if a written complaint is received, the county could ask the wind farm operator to resolve the problem by either shutting down the turbine or doing something else, like planting trees.
Ferguson seemed to agree with Madson’s suggestion, noting that a flat-out ban of shadow flicker anywhere on a property seems too restrictive.
"In my opinion, we are taking everything that is written and going with the most extreme outcome," he told the committee.
The full 12-member county board will continue the discussion about wind-farm rule revisions during a special meeting set for 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 24, in the courtroom on the second floor of the Ford County Courthouse in Paxton. The meeting is open to the public.
Board members began reviewing the 10-year-old wind-farm ordinance in fall 2017 — following complaints from residents in the Kempton area who live near the Kelly Creek Wind Farm — and implemented a moratorium on the issuance of any more special-use permits for wind farms until the board completes its review.