Ford County Planning Commission engulfed by winds of indecison

Ford County Planning Commission engulfed by winds of indecison

PAXTON — The disagreement over how close wind turbines should be allowed to homes in rural areas of Ford County was apparent by the attire worn by some people in the audience of the Ford County Planning Commission meeting.

"Wind works for Ford County," read the blue shirts worn by some in the packed second-floor courtroom at the Ford County Courthouse.

"(We love) wind too — at 3,250 feet from our property lines!!" read the yellow shirts worn by others.

The differences in opinion were apparent, as well, when those same people testified before the commission last week about a proposal to revise the county's ordinance regulating wind farms. While the proposal includes a measure to more than double the distance that wind turbines must be from homes, the yellow-clad group insisted that the county's plan was inadequate to protect the safety and health of its rural residents, while the people in blue — many of whom were representatives of wind-farm development firms — voiced the need for less-restrictive rules than had been proposed.

Others, meanwhile, just wanted to see an end to the debate.

"We've been reading about this in the paper for months. Let's get this settled, or (wind-farm developers) may just pack up and leave," resident Richard Perkins said. "This is good income for the county and the schools. Let's make a decision and get this over with."

But after hearing nearly 2 1/2 hours of testimony from 28 members of the public, the seven-member commission was unprepared to make a decision. Instead of taking a vote on whether to recommend the proposal advance to the county's zoning board of appeals, the commission adjourned its meeting to Sept. 27, with plans to discuss the issue further at that time.

The commission has been tasked with reviewing an ordinance drafted by the county board's zoning committee that includes a proposal to increase the existing 1,000-foot setback between wind turbines and "primary structures" — such as homes — to 2,250 feet, or four times a turbine's tip height, whichever is greater.

Yet no one voiced support for that specific change during the public hearing.

Instead, the three wind energy firms that brought representatives asked for a 1,500-foot setback, or three times a turbine's tip height, whichever is greater. Some said 2,250 feet would be too restrictive for owners of small parcels of land to lease their property for use by a wind farm, and such a setback would also not guarantee "better safety" of the non-participating residents.

Many of the rural residents in attendance also agreed that a 2,250-foot setback would not guarantee their safety, and they instead pushed for a 3,250-foot setback from property lines.

The 1,500-foot argument

Michael Cressner, lead developer for Orion Renewable Energy Group, said his firm has been developing the proposed Elliott Wind Farm. While advocating for a 1,500-foot setback as a "compromise," Cressner noted that the Marshall County wind farm his company operates has seen "zero complaints" despite the county requiring only a 1,000-foot setback.

"More does not guarantee more safety," Cressner said. "A 2,250-foot setback is not going to guarantee any better safety, any fewer complaints, but what it will guarantee is that the small landowners who have signed (leases) with us and do want to participate (in the Elliott Wind Farm) will not have that opportunity to participate because they will be 'setback' out from basically participating in the wind farm."

Also pushing for a 1,500-foot setback was James Madson, representing Pattern Development, a firm that is developing the proposed Heritage Prairie Wind Farm in the Roberts and Piper City area. Madson said a 1,500-foot setback would be "very standard" or even "above standard" compared with the regulations of most other counties in the Midwest.

Jaclyn Friedley, representing Apex Clean Energy, said a 1,500-foot setback would "more than compensate for the health and safety (of residents) while also telling others that Ford County's open for business." Apex is developing the proposed Ford Ridge Wind Farm in the Gibson City and Sibley area.

Apex's Erin Baker noted that a 2,250-foot setback would be "so restrictive that it is exceeded only by one other openly anti-wind county in Illinois." Baker said such a setback would "send a clear message that Ford County is not a place to do business."

The 3,250-foot argument

Several residents of rural areas argued for a 3,250-foot setback — from property lines, not homes — as a way to protect their health and ability to safely use all of their land.

Ted Hartke, an engineer and land surveyor who said he evacuated his Vermilion County home as a result of the noise of a nearby turbine, noted that a 3,250-foot setback would address concerns about blade throws and shadow flicker. He said evidence shows there is still a possibility of a turbine blade entering a non-participating property owner's land at that distance, but the chance is much lower than it would be with a 1,500-foot setback from homes.

Hartke noted that on May 4, a turbine in the U.S. tossed pieces of one of its blades 1,837 feet.

Hartke said a 1,500-foot setback from homes — or 2,250 feet, for that matter — would allow for encroachment issues, as non-participating landowners would be limited on the use of their land because some of it would be in the so-called "hazard zone."

"I think my children should be able to play in our yard — if I own five acres or 20 — and hang out at the creek at the back of our property and not be in this hazard area," Hartke said.

Rural Buckley resident Ann Ihrke reminded the commission of its purpose. When considering a special-use permit for a development, she said, the body is responsible for making sure it will not "endanger the public health, safety, morale, comfort or general welfare" of residents.

"It is not your job to find revenue for the county," she told commissioners. "It is not your job to support wind turbine companies. It is your job — and your only job — to make sure that you are following the purposes of the planning commission."

Will Brumleve is editor of the Ford County Record, a News-Gazette Media community newspaper. For more, visit fordcountyrecord.com.

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