New bill may knock wind out of county governments
Some Illinois counties are objecting to a state senator's proposal to give the Illinois Department of Agriculture, rather than each county, the sole authority to regulate the siting, construction and removal of commercial wind turbines.
Senate Bill 3263, sponsored by John Sullivan, R-Quincy, would create the Wind Energy Facilities Construction and Deconstruction Act, which would invalidate counties' existing wind ordinances and transfer such regulatory responsibilities to the state.
Sullivan said he is aware that his bill, which is an initiative of the Illinois Farm Bureau, is not looked upon favorably by some counties, specifically those that want to retain local control over wind farms. Wind-energy advocates are also not supportive of the measure.
However, Sullivan thinks the change would help bring consistency to Illinois' wind-farm rules, which vary greatly by county. It would also provide legal resources and expertise to smaller counties that otherwise may be short-handed when drafting wind ordinances.
"The legislation is really trying to address what some people believe is an inconsistency from county to county with regard to the regulations for wind farms," Sullivan said. "The concern is that some of the larger counties, especially, have more resources available to their county boards to draw up their ordinances that regulate wind farms, while some smaller counties simply do not have the resources or expertise to draw up those ordinances."
Sullivan said his bill, assigned Feb. 25 to the Senate's energy committee, would allow the Department of Agriculture to create a "statewide standard" for a wind farm's siting, construction and removal while also requiring an operator to enter into an "agricultural impact mitigation agreement" stating how the land affected by a wind farm's construction and removal will be restored.
The law would apply only to wind farms not yet built or permitted by a county board.
The "most controversial" part of the legislation, Sullivan said, is that siting authority would be transferred to the state's control. That would include setting a statewide standard for the setback, or distance, required between wind turbines and homes.
Sullivan said counties would not be able to require more or less restrictive setbacks than those required by the state, but developers could voluntarily use larger setbacks than required. He also stressed that although his legislation does not specify what the statewide turbine setback would be, counties would be able to give their input whenever the Department of Agriculture sets its standards.
"There would be an opportunity for input from anybody in the state interested in the discussion," Sullivan said. "The department would do its own research, as well, looking at what we've done here in Illinois and looking at other states."
Differences of opinion
Ford County Board Chairman Rick Bowen and Iroquois County Board Chairman Rod Copas both said they do not support the proposal because it would take away their respective county's authority.
Kevin Borgia, public policy manager for Wind on the Wires, a regional wind-energy advocacy group, mimicked their concerns, saying the legislation would "relegate the counties to an advisory role."
"We believe in local control, and we believe that local control should continue," Borgia said. "It shouldn't be a decision made by bureaucrats in Springfield or Chicago. The system currently in place is working better than any statewide system could."
Borgia noted that the state's wind farms have been built "safely and effectively without statewide regulations," and county regulations "are generally working well."
"There's variances between them, but the system generally works well in allowing the people closest to the project to have the final authority on whether the project is to be built," Borgia said. "It allows the community itself to decide if the community wants to welcome that wind farm into town. So if it's working, why change it?"
Borgia also questioned whether the Department of Agriculture actually possesses the resources and expertise needed.
"The state department of agriculture, which would have the authority to site a wind project, doesn't know anything about wind energy, and they don't really need that authority either," Borgia said. "They've never permitted wind projects, so we don't think they should be burdened with the authority to grant permits for wind projects, especially when the state is so broke."
Borgia also disputed the claim that some counties do not have adequate resources to draft effective wind ordinances. Borgia noted that Western Illinois University and Illinois State University regularly hold seminars "to educate county boards to understand the issues so they can effectively handle wind projects."
Also, if a county does not have the resources to hire an attorney, the developer of a wind farm often will offer to pay for an attorney who is chosen by the county, Borgia said.
Even opponents of the wind-energy industry object to the Sullivan's legislation.
"Mr. Sullivan apparently thinks local county officials are not smart enough to know how to regulate their own zoning," said rural Paxton resident Rich Porter, a member of Energize Illinois, a grass-roots organization that has protested the wind industry. "It's a power grab. It's unfair."
Bill Bodine, associate director of the Illinois Farm Bureau, said the legislation was prompted by bureau policy. Bodine said his organization's membership has developed a policy statement seeking legislation that establishes statewide standards for the construction and deconstruction of commercial wind-energy facilities.
"Sometimes in a county situation, counties may not have the resources or expertise, especially if they haven't dealt with wind farms previously," Bodine said. "The Department of Ag has resources to provide consistency for landowners around the state when it comes to siting issues."
Similar bills were introduced in the Legislature in the past by Sullivan and Sen. Mike Frerichs, but neither made it out of both chambers.
Specifics of the bill
If the proposed law is adopted, Sullivan said, the state, rather than counties, would issue permits for wind farms. Siting approval would require the construction plan to be compliant with the Illinois Pollution Control Board noise standards.
Each wind turbine's location would minimize shadow flicker at a residence or occupied building "to the extent reasonably practicable," the legislation reads.
The agriculture department would be required to notify the county where the wind farm would be built. The county board could then request that the department conduct a public "informational meeting" about the project, and then the county could submit a nonbinding recommendation to the department about the project's compliance with the state regulations.
Based on the recommendation, the department could later give the developer notice that its siting is approved.
The legislation would require a wind-farm operator to fully deconstruct the wind farm at its own cost, within 18 months of the end of the useful life of the wind farm. The company would be required, prior to construction, to file a report that spells out the estimated deconstruction cost per turbine and how the company plans to pay for it. The company would also need to file a reclamation bond to cover the anticipated costs. If the company fails to complete deconstruction, the department would be able to draw upon the financial assurance provided, the legislation says.
Each developer would also need to have an agricultural impact mitigation agreement in place with the Department of Agriculture, which would "address such items as access roads, construction staging and storage areas, excavation and backfill, protection of agricultural drainage tiles, wind turbine foundations, wind turbine erection, restoration of agricultural land affected by all construction and deconstruction, indemnification of landowners, monitoring and remediation," the legislation says.
Ford County Board sending letter to Senate panel
The Ford County Board is unanimous in its opposition to legislation that would give the state's agriculture department control over wind-farm regulation.
The board has also agreed to send a letter, drafted by Chairman Rick Bowen, to all 18 members of the state Senate's energy committee, explaining the reasons Ford County objects to the bill, which has been assigned to that committee.
"If we can act on it now, this bill may never see the light of day," board member Tim Nuss said. "If you've ever read over the bill ... it's a dirty bill, and it doesn't help any of us."
Nuss encouraged other Illinois counties to also state their opposition to the legislation.
"I don't see how any of us on the county board could ever recommend that power is taken away from us on a county level and be given to the people on the state level," he said.
In his letter, Bowen said he believes counties should "maintain the authority to establish standards for wind farms and electric-generating devices." He added that Ford County already has the same provisions in place that would be established at a statewide level if the bill passes.
"Ford County already has provisions for public informational meetings, final determinations related to approval of siting, and deconstruction activities," Bowen said.