PAXTON — The developers of three proposed wind farms in Ford County warned the county board Tuesday that they may not be able to proceed with construction under even the least restrictive of proposed regulations being considered by the board.
"We want to build here, but if an ordinance is put in place that makes that impossible ... we will go elsewhere," cautioned Adam Renz of Houston-based Pattern Energy Group, developer of the Heritage Prairie Wind Farm in the Roberts and Piper City area.
Two other wind-farm developers — Apex Clean Energy, based in Charlottesville, Va., and Orion Renewable Energy Group, headquartered in Oakland, Calif. — gave the board a similar admonishment during Tuesday’s four-hour special meeting.
The developers were responding to a straw poll that showed all 12 county board members supported restricting wind turbines from being any closer than 1,640 feet from the property lines of any land not being leased to a wind-farm operator.
Some members even want the minimum distance to be as large as 2,250 feet, if not 3,250 feet, to protect nonparticipating residents from the nuisances turbines can create, such as noise or shadow flicker.
"There are times it is loud," said board member Tom McQuinn, whose rural Paxton home is about 2,500 feet from a turbine. "It is extremely loud and obnoxious, and I personally could never vote to make someone live closer than 2,250 feet from one. ... We should be able to protect those who don’t want anything right on top of them."
For the past year, ever since the board’s zoning committee began discussing revisions to the county’s ordinance regulating wind farms, developers have been asking for no greater than a 1,500-foot setback — and not from property lines but instead from "primary structures" such as homes. That is 500 feet larger than the setback currently required under Ford County’s wind ordinance, which was enacted nine years ago.
The zoning committee eventually agreed on a setback from primary structures of 2,250 feet, or four times a turbine’s tip height, whichever is greater. That recommendation was then considered this fall by the zoning board of appeals, which last month recommended a setback of just 1,800 feet.
Two county board members supported a 1,800-foot setback Tuesday, with three favoring a 1,640-foot setback and seven agreeing on a 2,250-foot setback. While disagreement persisted on the appropriate number, all 12 agreed that whatever setback is enacted should apply to property lines, not primary structures.
The board’s vice chairman, Chase McCall of Gibson City, called it a "no-brainer" to apply the setback to property lines, given the number of people who have complained about actual or potential problems with living too close to turbines in Ford County and elsewhere.
However, McCall said he could not support any setback greater than 2,250 feet because it would make construction of a wind farm extremely difficult, if not impossible.
"Anything more than 2,250 feet, you might as well just tell a wind developer, ‘See you later,’" McCall said.
Wind-farm developers, however, later told the board that even a 1,640-foot setback from property lines could negatively impact their planned projects — perhaps even "killing" them.
Developers were also concerned about the results of a separate straw poll taken Tuesday that showed the entire board supported keeping the maximum height of wind turbines in Ford County unchanged at 500 feet.
To accommodate larger, more efficient turbines they say will likely eventually become standard in the wind-energy industry, developers had previously requested the county revise its ordinance regulating wind farms to allow turbines as tall as 600 feet or even 650 feet.
However, county board members said too much remained unknown about the potential nuisances that 600-foot turbines could create. None have been built in the U.S. yet.
"Below 500 feet (for a turbine’s maximum height) is going to make it extremely difficult to develop in this county, and the reason why is because that is going to force developers such as ours to use inefficient turbines which are going to make our projects uncompetitive economically, which means we’re not going to have a customer to sell this to," said Michael Cressner, project development manager for Orion Renewable Energy Group, which is developing the proposed Elliott Wind Farm near Elliott.
"The more controversial (proposal), though, in what has been proposed is the ‘structure’ versus ‘property line’ setback," Cressner continued. "To be very clear, Orion Energy cannot develop a wind farm if your setback is 2,250 feet from a property line. We can probably do it from a primary structure, but from a property line it pretty much kills the project."
Cressner went on to say that even a setback of as little as 1,640 feet from property lines would likely make it "impossible for us to develop here in Ford County," since it would "wipe out the vast majority of our small landowners who are participating" in the project as a result of being too close to the proposed turbine locations.
While Ford County Board members noted that under the proposed ordinance revisions, landowners could agree to sign waivers to allow turbines to be closer than the setback requirement — as close as 1,000 feet from a structure — Cressner noted that it is extremely unlikely enough waivers could be obtained to make Orion’s project possible.
"We’re not going to have 100 percent participation (in landowners agreeing to waivers); it just doesn’t happen like that in reality," Cressner said.
Erin Baker, senior development manager for Apex Clean Energy, the developer of the proposed Ford Ridge Wind Farm in the Gibson City and Sibley area, warned the board that increased setbacks are not the only factor that could end up terminating a project. Besides greater setbacks, the board is considering amending its ordinance to reflect increased fees for construction permits and greater financial assurance required of developers to cover decommissioning costs, among other measures.
"It’s not just one thing that’s going to put a project in jeopardy," Baker said. "It’s all of these things as a whole. ... No one thing might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back."
Regarding the proposed setbacks, Baker noted that the lower number being considered by the board — 1,640 feet — was proposed by board members based on the fact that one wind-turbine manufacturer’s safety manual states that workers should stay at least that distance from a turbine in the event that one catches fire, for example. Baker, however, said the manual from where the number came is "10 years old." Baker also noted that two of the other top manufacturers of turbines in the world listed different numbers in their own safety manuals — numbers that were "much lower."
"So 1,640 is not the only number out there," Baker said.
Baker said a 2,250-foot setback from property lines, meanwhile, would "allow a single-acre property to control over a square-mile of surrounding (property) for future development.’
"A 5-acre landowner would knock out 16 surrounding landowners," Baker said. "Even if all 16 surrounding landowners were willing to sign a waiver, it does not matter at that point, because their waiver is meaningless in the face of this 5-acre landowner who says, ‘We don’t want wind turbines.’"
Tim Ryan, representing the Laborers’ International Union of North America, said the county board’s proposed restrictions would likely cause the county to lose out on the property tax revenue and the jobs that wind farms would bring.
"There’s no wind farm in the state of Illinois that has ever been built with that type of ordinance enacted," Ryan said. "You will not find a single wind farm that was built under that kind of ordinance. It can’t be done."
No decisions were made Tuesday. Instead, the county board made plans to schedule another meeting to further discuss the issues, with even more meetings expected to follow after that.
Ford County State’s Attorney Andrew Killian said that for the county board to approve changes to the wind ordinance, the Illinois Zoning Code requires that a super-majority — at least nine of the board’s 12 members — vote in favor.
Killian said the super-majority is required because the village of Roberts has filed a written protest to the zoning board of appeals’ recommendations regarding setbacks and turbine height limitations. The Roberts village board is asking the county to implement a 3,250-foot setback from property lines and a maximum turbine height of 500 feet.
County board member Cindy Ihrke of rural Roberts said she feels a setback from property lines of 3,250 feet would be the most appropriate solution to protect the health, safety and welfare of rural residents. However, she said she realizes that such a large setback also "makes people nervous." With that in mind, she said she would be willing to support as small as a 2,250-foot setback as long as noise limitations were adequately addressed in a separate section of the wind ordinance.
County Board Chairman Bob Lindgren of rural Loda said there needs to be "sacrifices" made on "both sides" of the debate. Lindgren suggested having a smaller setback apply to property lines and a larger one apply to buildings.
County board member Bernadette Ray of Gibson City suggested a 1,640-foot setback between turbines and property lines, and a separate 2,250-foot setback between turbines and structures.
Whether other board members feel that sort of proposal is acceptable remains to be seen, but board member Chuck Aubry of Gibson City noted that at least some progress has been made: "We have a range (of possibilities) now that we can discuss."
"It’s going to be a give-and-take," said board member Jason Johnson of rural Paxton. "Nobody’s going to be happy through this whole process. We’re not going to please everybody."
Board to meet again Dec. 13
During the board’s regularly scheduled monthly meeting Monday night, zoning committee Chairman Randy Ferguson of Gibson City set a committee meeting for 6 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 13, in the small courtroom on the first floor of the Ford County Courthouse.
Ferguson said the meeting will mostly address proposed solar farm regulations. Ferguson said there will be some discussion of wind farms but told other members that he thinks the board is at a stalemate on wind-farm regulations and that it might be time to put an advisory question to the public for a vote.
Meanwhile, other board members said they believed there was room for compromise and wondered aloud what a ballot question would ask.
Ferguson said he also thinks the board should hire an attorney who specializes in wind-farm issues.
"Each side accuses the other, and we don’t know who’s right," Ferguson said.
Ferguson said he is also concerned that the written protest that the Roberts village board has made could hamstring the development of wind farms in the rest of the county.
The only public comment on the wind-farm subject Monday night was from Kaylyn Davis, who cited the global warming crisis in reports by both U.S. scientists and those from the United Nations.
"The U.S. is not doing its part," Davis told the board. "I ask you to take action to avert the problem. Which scares you more — ice throw from taller towers or crisis global warming?"
The Dec. 13 zoning committee meeting will be followed at 8 p.m. by a personnel and insurance committee meeting. On the meeting’s agenda is a discussion and possible action regarding the open Ford County Emergency Management Agency coordinator position, for which Buckley resident Terry Whitebird has expressed an interest in filling.
The board did not set its next special meeting to discuss changes to the wind ordinance.
Carol Thilmony contributed to this report.