WATSEKA — Iroquois County State's Attorney Jim Devine has conceded that Douglas Township officials obeyed the state's sunshine laws — to a "minimally acceptable" standard — when they approved increasing the distance required between wind turbines and homes on properties not being leased for a wind farm.
After a months-long legal dispute, Devine said he drafted an amendment to the county's ordinance regulating wind farms last week to reflect the increased setback for turbines from "non-participating primary structures" within Douglas Township. A new ordinance, signed by County Board Chairman Ron Schroeder, was filed in the county clerk's office on Tuesday, and it is now in effect, Devine said.
The county board approved changing the county's ordinance on July 12 to allow a 2,000-foot setback in Douglas Township — a setback that is 500 feet deeper than required by the county. The county board's approval came after Douglas Township's board of supervisors and plan commission both approved the setback in June and then requested the county board approve the change.
But until last week, Devine had refused to draft the ordinance that was approved because he felt township officials did not properly notify the public. In late August, Douglas Township officials and their attorneys threatened litigation to force Devine to draft the ordinance.
Devine said Thursday that his concerns about the township providing proper public notice have been alleviated.
"I consulted a township expert attorney and used his expertise to guide me on this," Devine said. "The conclusion was what (the Douglas Township board and plan commission) did was minimally acceptable but acceptable nonetheless, so I went ahead and wrote the ordinance that was already approved, and it's now law."
Rod Copas, an Iroquois County Board member from rural Onarga who also serves as a Douglas Township supervisor, said he is "glad it's done," adding, however, that "it's unfortunate we've had to waste (Iroquois County) taxpayers' money on things like this instead of finding out first (what is and is not legal).
"I'm just amazed it's taken this long to get where we're at."
Douglas Township's adoption of the 2,000-foot setback is believed to be the first time a township in Illinois has adopted a wind-turbine setback more restrictive than its county's, according to Kevin Borgia, executive director of the Illinois Wind Energy Association.
Iroquois County's setback of 1,500 feet, approved in June, was already the largest countywide setback in the state for wind turbines. But Douglas Township officials did not think that was enough. The township was legally allowed to adopt a larger setback than its county's because the township has a planning commission.
Some wind farm companies have said a 2,000-foot setback would be so restrictive that it would effectively eliminate the possibility of a wind farm. But Copas noted it is a "waivable setback," so a landowner can agree to allow a turbine placed closer to his or her home.
Under the county's ordinance, a turbine can be no closer to a home than 1.1 times the tower's height. That means that a 400-foot turbine could be placed as close as 440 feet from a home.
Copas said the 2,000-foot setback should be a "benefit to the township" and help protect the quality of life of rural residents who live on small farms not being leased for a wind farm. Copas noted that "63 percent of our residents that are in the rural areas (of Douglas Township) just have small home acreages and need some protection."
Copas said the setback would also provide protection for the property values of homes around any wind farms that are constructed in the township. The setback would also ensure residential and commercial growth remains an option, Copas said.
"People won't build new homes near these things," Copas noted.
Devine had argued in a letter he wrote in August to Douglas Township attorneys that the Illinois Township Code requires a meeting's agenda and notice be posted at least 10 days before a meeting, as well as in a local newspaper, but "neither of these requirements were done" when the township board and its plan commission held meetings to approve the setback.
Douglas Township attorneys wrote in response that a township board must provide 48 hours' notice of a meeting, not 10 days. They added that notices and agendas for the township meetings were posted at the building in which the meetings were to be held and in "various prominent places throughout the township."
However, Linda Dvorak, superintendent of the Iroquois West School District, which includes Douglas Township, expressed concerns last summer that she was never notified of the meeting and subsequently was unable to provide any input on how a 2,000-foot setback could affect the district's potential for attracting wind farms and increasing its tax base.