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McLean County Board greenlights solar energy project

Jim Fraley speaks to the McLean county board at a lectern with a microphone
Colin Hardman
Longtime farmer Jim Fraley addressed the McLean County Board on Thursday, May 16, 2024, in support of the Earthrise's solar energy project.

The McLean County Board on Thursday gave final approval to a solar energy installation east of Bloomington-Normal, between Gibson City and Saybrook.

During its monthly meeting at the Government Center, the board unanimously authorized the plan, finalizing the go-ahead it previously received from the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Representatives of the developer, Earthrise Energy, say cover crops on the site will minimize impact on the land, and be healthy for pollinators and other wildlife.

Some public commenters were pleased with the prospect of construction jobs related to the 135-megawatt project.

While not present at the meeting, lead developer Ellie Ginis had a letter read at the meeting addressing previous concerns about whether labor at the site would be unionized. According to the letter, while not all contractors have been selected, every candidate is required to only use union workers.

Jim Fraley has been a farmer for 37 years and is one of the landowners involved with the project. He said solar energy will make his land more consistently productive for his family.

“It was an opportunity for us to, as a family, diversify our farm and provide long-term income for our next generation, and to make the best and highest use of our farmland,” he said.

Earthrise development director Emre Ozmen provided additional details after the meeting. According to Ozmen, nine landowners are participating in providing the site, which was in part attractive to Earthrise due to its good access to transmission infrastructure.

Ozmen says funding for construction will be drawn from "sponsor equity, tax equity and debt financing," and will total over $300 million. Earthrise is also working on other renewable energy projects in Illinois near the company's existing natural gas peaker plants. Peaker plants are a supplementary power source that provide extra electricity when demand is highest.

Construction on the solar project is expected to begin in the fall, with completion in about 18 months.

Disability voting incident awaits resolution

Also present at the meeting was Terri Evans, who attended the board’s last meeting to speak of an incident that occurred while helping her son Tres’von, who has cerebral palsy, vote in March.

Evans has helped her son vote for years, but in the most recent case, she was stopped after ballots were submitted, and election officials attempted to obtain guardianship documents. After the last board meeting, she said she was approached and told the paperwork she provided to election judges was not correct.

Terri Evans speaks to the McLean county board using a microphone at a lectern
Colin Hardman
Terri Evans speaks to the McLean County Board about her experience voting with her son.

“I need clarity, because we will be back at the polls in November,” Evans said. “And I don’t plan to be stopped. But I would like to have clarity on what it is that my son and I did wrong, and what is the proper paperwork?”

Bloomington NAACP vice president Willie Horton Halbert also spoke to the board last month in support of Evans and voting rights, a role she reprised at Thursday's meeting.

At the April board meeting, Evans said she was able to confirm from the county clerk's office that her son's vote was counted. The office also apologized and said the election judge involved in the incident would not work another election, she was told.

Housing recovery recommendations

Raymond Lai, the executive director of the county’s regional planning commission, presented a series of recommendations outlined in its Regional Housing Recovery Plan.

The commission received a Research in Illinois to Spur Economic Recovery (RISE) grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. Plans for the funds went into action in March, with the goal of identifying strategies for improving the local housing market.

Among other things, the plan calls for extending the housing navigator position housed at Mid-Central Community Action, and creating a paid position of a regional housing coordinator.

Lai identified a number of problems with the status quo, including an over focus on single-family zoning, a competitive market with rising prices, and lack of access to resources like public transportation.

Mark Adams and Raymond Lai discuss housing recommendations before the McLean county board
Colin Hardman
Mark Adams, left, and Raymond Lai from the McLean County Regional Planning Commission outline housing recommendations to County Board members.

The recommendations span several fronts, including more diverse zoning to create housing for all residents, improving access to affordable housing programs, and incentivizing landlords to improve existing housing and rent to a wider swath of the population. A persistent theme in Lai’s remarks was the need for interagency collaboration throughout the region in order to address housing issues more effectively.

The Bloomington and Normal councils previously heard the report from commission representatives.

Corrected: May 17, 2024 at 10:18 AM CDT
This story has been updated from its original version to correct the spelling of a person's name. It's Jim Fraley, not Farley.
Colin Hardman is a correspondent at WGLT. He joined the station in 2022.