McLean County Board Blows Hot And Cold On Wind Farm Rules | WGLT

McLean County Board Blows Hot And Cold On Wind Farm Rules

Nov 15, 2016

Wind turbines at dusk along the LeRoy-Lexington Blacktop.
Credit Staff / WGLT

Wind Farm rules gusted back into the McLean County Board room yesterday.

The county has strengthened environmental protections before allowing new wind tower projects to go forward. But, debate over the so-called text amendment to special use permit requirements also covered noise, rural quality of life, and the cost to remove wind towers.

The issue first blew up back in July when County Board member Catherine Metsker took aim at the County Zoning Department for failing to notify townships and cities about the proposed rule changes that had been drafted with the help of the Illinois Farm Bureau.

"The lack of openness in this office was frustrating. And I only obtained the information I specifically asked for, nothing more," said Metsker.

Zoning Director Phil Dick said, at the time, specific wind farm projects have broader notification requirements than a text amendment, even though the implications are potentially more far reaching for the rules governing all wind farms in the county.

Metsker also took issue with the Farm Bureau being allowed to draft a rules change without other stakeholder input. She retaliated with a proposed change for spacing and setback requirements from nearby residences that likely would have prevented any more wind farms from being approved. The County Board instead sent the issue back to the Zoning Board for another hearing and more adequate notice to townships.

Metsker lives just to the west of a wind farm.

"And I must say that living among these industrial turbines is not what my husband and I envisioned when we bought our acreage thirty years ago in White Oak Township," said Metsker.

After those hearings, there came a do-over before the full board on Tuesday.

Wind Farm representatives have, over the years in various jurisdictions, put forth noise studies and submitted testimony arguing for the adequacy of lower setbacks. Metsker didn't buy it, saying it does affect her quality of life.

"I can attest that setbacks of fifteen hundred feet from a residence home is not enough. However, the Zoning Board of Appeals did not agree. Therefore, the text amendment we are to consider includes shortened setbacks," said Metzger.

Board Member Don Cavallini notes Livingston County voters just turned down a referendum on a sixteen-hundred-foot setback with a no vote meaning sixteen-hundred-feet is not long enough for them.

"I don't have a magic answer for the distance, but it would seem to me that there are quite a few people who feel that these setbacks are not adequate enough. And I guess I keep hoping that the wind farm company, if it is to be a good neighbor, would be able to address this issue for people who have a deep underlying concern," said Cavallini.

Cavallini expressed hope the wind utilities will modify the setback on their own.

Catherine Metzger said she could reluctantly live with a fifteen-hundred-foot setback from houses. A bigger issue, and the one that drew her 'no' vote, is what happens after a wind farm is old enough to shut down? Wind Farm companies have set up these tall metal towers, hauled in on heavy trucks, and bolted to big concrete counterweight bases buried under the farmland.

Some early wind farm leases left farm land owners in parts of Illinois with a big chunk of concrete that will be merely buried after de-commissioning. That's less the case on new projects now. And there is state law covering many parts of the industry too.

Wind utilities are supposed to set aside a reserve to deal with decommissioning. But, County Board member George Wendt joined Metsker in voting against what he worried is an inadequate arrangement.

Wendt questioned whether the industry is viable.

"There was about a sixty-day period of time when the federal government did not approve the subsidies to the wind farms and all the wind farm companies quit putting them up because their analysis showed they couldn't survive without the federal subsidies. As we develop the rest of our resources, oil and natural gas, wind farms may become even less profitable," said Wendt.

And that, Metsker said, exposes taxpayers.

"When these industrial complexes become obsolete, the townships and our county will require significant financial resources to decommission these structures," said Metsker.

Board member Susan Schafer said the reserve requirement is thirty-five-thousand-dollars per tower. Schafer thinks that's ok for now. But, she is concerned inflation will eat away at the adequacy of the reserve to meet the cost of ripping out the cement and metal and covering the hole with fertile soil.

Yet, Schafer supported the text amendment saying the issue is not forever closed. She said the county will get a second bite at the apple when wind farm projects become real proposals and not just possibilities.

"If we don't like the de-commissioning, we can send that back to the ZBA and get more testimony and make our wishes known at that time when the special use actually gets applied for," said Schafer.

You might think that seeing the wind mills turning lazily in the breeze would not have any other impacts. But the eye is fooled by the size of the towers. The big swooping blades have a fairly high angular velocity and turbine-caused bird and bat deaths are an issue in many parts of the country.

Sending the text amendment back to the Zoning Board did produce stronger language about wildlife protection. And Board member Victoria Harris approved.  

"They're looking at the relevant species and protections for the relevant species. And they're going to get feedback about that also to see if there has been any interference with the species that are relevant to this area," said Harris.

Board member Laurie Wollrab had hoped for something a little bit stronger to protect birds and bats, but she is pleased with the movement.

"I wish we had a requirement that the pre-siting study be included with the application and that the language about credible evidence was more definitive. But, overall I'm thankful that these things have been codified," said Wollrab

There is also language in the local rules about lighting and noise protections to avoid interference with wildlife.

As the county was considering the first wind farm projects years ago, County Board member Bill Caisley objected to a lack of fire suppression. At the time he said there had been serious fires in wind towers because the hydraulic fluid is flammable. Caisley says he'd still like to have fire suppression technology, but in the latest iteration of the special use permit rules, there has been some movement to address his worry.

"At least here we have a coordination with the local fire department. We're making some progress. I'm pretty certain that a lot of our rural fire protection districts do not have the facilities and equipment to battle fires that are a hundred fifty feet in the air," said Caisley.

Board member Jim Soeldner reminded the board why wind farms became desirable in the first place, and it wasn't because of the green revolution or environmentally friendly energy. Soeldner said the economic benefits of wind farms should not be discounted.

"I wake every morning to the sound of wind turbines in Ellsworth. I live in the wind farm out there. And I know that the decommissioning issue will be an issue in the future, but we also need to remember that the assessed valuation in Dawson Township went from thirteen-million-dollars to twenty-four-million because of the wind farm. So, that has helped the taxpayers in our township and overall in the county," said Soeldner.

All of this is evidence that wind farms will for some time continue to be an evolving area for regulation.