Local oversight of wind-farm projects is working just fine
County boards in Illinois have had the responsibility for regulating wind-farm projects for more than a decade. Local control has worked well, and we see no reason for the state to take over.
Area county boards are weighing in with opposition to proposed state legislation that would weaken local oversight of wind farms.
We think they are right in opposing a bill introduced by Rep. John Sullivan, D-Rushville, that would move wind-farm regulation to the state Department of Agriculture.
The Champaign County Board indicated its disapproval in a voice vote at last Thursday's meeting. The Ford County Board earlier had registered unanimous opposition, and Iroquois County Board Chairman Rod Copas said he does not support the proposal.
Sullivan's bill would give the agriculture department the sole authority to regulate the siting, construction and removal of commercial wind projects and invalidate local wind-farm ordinances across the state.
It would standardize such controversial issues as setbacks for wind turbines from primary buildings such as homes. County officials would be notified when a wind-farm development is proposed and would be allowed to hold public hearings and make nonbinding recommendations to the agriculture department, but the decision-making would rest with the department.
The bill would not apply to wind farms already built or permitted by counties.
Sullivan introduced the bill at the behest of the Illinois Farm Bureau, which is concerned about consistency of rules throughout the state. The Farm Bureau notes that some wind-farm developments overlap counties and thus can be subject to different regulations. Farmers and landowners with wind turbines on their properties also have different levels of protection in different counties.
"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.
Champaign County Board members, along with others around the state, see it more as an unnecessary usurpation of local control, however.
County board members said at last Thursday's meeting that Champaign County's wind-farm ordinance provides better protection for citizens than the regulations in Sullivan's bill.
Board chairman Al Kurtz, a Champaign Democrat, said the legislation would "interfere with us doing what we have done and building a very, very strong wind-farm ordinance, probably a role model for the rest of the state."
Illinois has been a leader in wind power generation and wind turbine manufacturing since the first wind power project went online in 2003. In fact, the state ranks fourth in the nation in the number of wind turbines installed, with more than 40 projects online, and wind generating capacity, this despite relatively modest wind resources compared with other areas, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
There have been extensive wind-farm developments in East Central Illinois in recent years. The California Ridge wind farm, consisting of 134 wind turbines, spreads across western Vermilion and eastern Champaign counties. Ford, Iroquois and McLean counties also have large wind farms.
From the beginning, the responsibility for siting and regulating wind projects has belonged to county governments in Illinois. We see no reason for that to change now, and in fact county officials, the wind power industry and even foes of wind power all over the state have criticized the proposal as unnecessary.
Wind industry officials say the measure may do more harm than good.
Kevin Borgia, public policy manager for Wind on the Wires, a regional wind-energy advocacy group, said the state's wind farms have been built "safely and effectively without statewide regulations," and county regulations "are generally working well."
In addition, county boards are a much more accessible and responsive forum than the state department of agriculture for people to air complaints about noise, property values, setbacks and other concerns.
Sullivan's bill has been referred to the Senate Energy Committee. He says he's heard opposition from county officials as well as comments from those who think the bill does not go far enough, and that he has some more work to do before he can move the measure forward.
While it makes sense in theory to standardize rules for wind power throughout the state and centralize the power to regulate, the system of local control has worked well for more than a decade without state involvement.
As the cliche goes, Rep. Sullivan's bill is a solution in search of a problem.
Given the well-founded and widespread opposition to his bill, Sullivan would be wise to leave it on the shelf where it belongs.