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Tazewell County is considering a major wind farm ordinance overhaul. Here's 5 answers to questions you may have about the proposal

A photo of the eastern portion of the Rail Splitter Wind Farm in Logan County.
A photo of the eastern portion of the Rail Splitter Wind Farm in Logan County.

A familiar fight over wind turbines is cropping up in Tazewell County.

Wrangling over new wind farm ordinances have played out in zoning meetings and county boardrooms across the state over the past several years.

A call for new restrictions is usually driven by a group of concerned rural residents. In this case, it's the United Citizens of Tazewell County, a group of legacy rural Mackinaw farmers organized as a limited liability corporation.

United Citizens of Tazewell County attorney Phil Leutkehans speaks to a packed boardroom on the opening night of hearings over a proposed wind farm ordinance change in Tazewell County.
United Citizens of Tazewell County attorney Phil Leutkehans speaks to a packed boardroom on the opening night of hearings over a proposed wind farm ordinance change in Tazewell County.

They're represented by Phil Leutkehans, an Itasca attorney and Republican power player who's represented similar citizen groups in successful pushes for more restrictions on wind farm developments in other rural counties, including Livingston and Christian.

The opponents of the new ordinance are the wind companies seeking to develop major new projects in rural Tazewell County, a panel of experts brought in largely from Chicago or out of state to testify in favor of wind energy, and a cadre of central Illinois environmental advocates.

The issues generate significant public interest. The meeting room was packed to capacity on the first night of hearings, with an overflow crowd relegated to an adjacent lobby.

Some of the players involved on either side of the wind energy debate encounter each other so frequently at similar hearings around the state that they're on a familiar basis.

Opponents and proponents of the proposed wind farm ordinance amendments have presented arguments and rebuttals over more than 12 hours of testimony stretched over three sessions before the Tazewell County Zoning Board of Appeals.

Now, it's up to the ZBA to make its recommendation on what the future of wind energy may look like in Tazewell County.

What's in the current ordinance?

Tazewell County's current wind farm ordinance is more than a decade old. It requires any wind turbine towers to be set back at least 750 feet from dwellings on adjoining property, and no less than 1 1/10 the tower height's distance from dwellings on the property.

EDP Renewables' Rail Splitter Wind Farm in southern Tazewell and northern Logan counties has operated under these regulations. Online since 2009, the farm produces more than 100 megawatts of energy with its 67 turbines.

It's currently the only wind farm operating in Tazewell County, but EDP Renewables wants to construct 20 to 28 taller turbines in the county by 2024 as part of its Rail Splitter II project.

Wind energy company Invenergy also is in the early planning stages of construction for an additional 200 megawatt wind farm in southeastern Tazewell County, likely with taller turbines than what's been seen in the county to date.

What changes are the citizen's group proposing?

The United Citizens of Tazewell County is presenting a complete rewrite of the existing wind energy ordinance for the zoning board's consideration.

The first page of the proposed new wind ordinance proposed by the United Citizens of Tazewell County.
Tazewell County Zoning Board of Appeals
The first page of the proposed new wind ordinance proposed by the United Citizens of Tazewell County.

The new language is considerably more restrictive than what's currently on the county's books. The proposed amendment would require setbacks of 3,000 feet, or six times the height of the tower from all property lines.

Affected landowners could choose to waive that setback requirement, in which case a turbine couldn't be less than 1 1/2 times the height of the tower from another structure.

The ordinance also would only allow wind towers on sites where at least 75% of the soil has a productivity index of less than 125. Soils within a quarter-mile radius of the turbine would be tested.

The amendment would forbid "shadow flicker" beyond the property line of a participating wind farm property. That's the "flickering" shadow cast by a wind turbine's blades when the sun is at certain points in the horizon.

Wind farms also couldn't cause any sounds above 38 decibels on a non-participating property, and an avian habitat study would be required to determine if the wind farm would have a significant impact on birds.

Separately, a six-month moratorium on new wind farm projects in Tazewell County also is on the table to prevent developers from submitting new applications until the new ordinance goes into effect.

What are the proponents saying?

Members and representatives of the United Citizens of Tazewell County repeated many of the same claims about wind energy throughout the hearings. They claim they aren't anti-wind, but they have concerns.

"Let's be clear, my clients are not against wind energy," said Phil Luetkehans, the UCTC attorney. "We just want a reasonable, safe development of wind energy that does not affect property values and the health, safety and welfare of the people of Tazewell County."

The concerns cited by Luetkehans were myriad, ranging from an unattributed study claiming wind turbines increase cortisol levels and affect animal growth, to sleep disruptions from the noise produced by the turning blades. There were aspersions that wind turbines could be akin to the once-unknown negative health impacts of cigarettes.

Most of the rural Mackinaw landowners introduced themselves by mentioning how many generations their family has farmed the land in Tazewell County.

UCTC members speaking during the meeting's public comment portion recited similar talking points. Some of the common complaints included the lengthy duration of the 50-year length of lease contracts wind companies are asking landowners to sign, the aforementioned health concerns, and a belief that nuisances like shadow flicker, lights, or noise created by wind turbines on an adjacent property are paramount to an infringement of property rights.

"I pay property taxes in this county, property line to property line. So as a taxpayer, I expect my family rights to be respected," said UCTC's Eric Schmidgall. "My neighbor's wind turbine on their property should never be annoying, a nuisance, or a threat to any of my members of my family's health."

Amber Towle, also a member of UCTC, said she's concerned about the impact wind turbine construction could have on agricultural soil quality, particularly the fertile topsoil.

"I've heard and read way too many stories about how developers make promises that unfortunately were not upheld in the coming years. I read about how semis and skid steers and cranes are working on soil that's too wet," Towle said. "This not only destroys the soil structure, but also the ecosystem of that soil. Soil is a living breathing organism, and once you rip it up, it will never be the same."

Mackinaw farmer Brad Long said the current zoning ordinance is too permissive, allowing some of the world's most fertile agricultural land to be eaten up by wind energy conversion systems.

"We have very productive soil in Tazewell County, and I'm not against wind energy, but maybe it doesn't belong in our county," he said.

A petition circulated by UCTC in support of the ordinance change has garnered more than 750 signatures, though some of the signatories are absentee landowners not living in Tazewell County.

What are the opponents saying?

EDP Renewables and Invenergy are competitors in the wind energy industry, but the companies were on the same page about what they believe the proposed ordinance means for Tazewell County.

"The impact would be to prohibit any future wind energy projects from being developed in the county," said John Aquilino, an environmental manager for Invenergy. "There will be no future wind energy projects in this county if this ordinance is enacted."

Invenergy project manager Sarah Carroll claimed about $50 million in property tax revenue would be created for local governments throughout the lifespan of their project. She said the company can design a project to ensure a property isn't receiving more than 30 hours of shadow flicker a year, a standard they consider "reasonable."

Katie Chapman, the project manager with EDP Renewables, said the current industry standard for wind turbine height exceeds the 500 foot limit the amended Tazewell County ordinance would create.

"Things like that we view as a clear signal from counties to avoid (them), because it would be disingenuous to come to a county that is clearly signaling that they do not support current turbine technology, fully intending to use modern turbines, which are significantly taller," Chapman said.

She said that also creates the unintended consequence of requiring more, shorter turbines to generate the same amount of energy. That requires a larger overall land footprint, she said.

Chapman said the new property line setbacks proposed would throw all but three turbines of the existing Rail Splitter I wind farm near Delavan out of compliance with Tazewell County regulations, and the entire project area of the proposed Rail Splitter II project.

Current setbacks required under Tazewell County's wind energy ordinance.
Current setbacks required under Tazewell County's wind energy ordinance.
Setbacks proposed under the amended Tazewell County wind farm zoning ordinance.
Setbacks proposed under the amended Tazewell County wind farm zoning ordinance.

She also said the soil productivity requirement would effectively eliminate any potential sites in the county from feasibility.

"We consulted internally and externally to find avenues of compromise and ways to successfully proceed with development using the proposed ordinance amendment provisions, and we're unable to do so," Chapman said. "So we therefore respectfully urge the zoning board to reject the amendment has proposed."

"If this ordinance were to be approved, we would have to conclude development of this project and could no longer continue building a wind project in the county," Carroll agreed.

Several Peoria-area environmentalists also spoke against the proposed wind farm ordinance, though not all were from Tazewell County.

Tracy Fox of Chillicothe is a member of the Central Illinois Healthy Community Alliance. She said despite claims to the contrary, she believes the ordinance is anti-wind.

"They're asking for setbacks that would render existing wind projects illegal if they weren't grandfathered in, and it would effectively give any neighbor a veto over what his neighbors are doing. I think those are challenging things to move ahead with," she said.

The president of the Tazewell County Farm Bureau also said his organization opposes the ordinance for running contrary to state Farm Bureau guidelines. Many UCTC members at the June 15 hearing said while they are members of the county farm bureau, the organization doesn't speak for them on this issue.

What happens next?

In addition to the county Zoning Board of Appeals, members of the county Land Use Committee and the Tazewell County Board attended the hearings.

Members didn't tip their hands much as to their own thoughts about the ordinance proposal, though county board member Greg Sinn told a commenter that there is "universal agreement" for some kind of code change or update.

The wind companies asked the ZBA to consider adopting an ordinance similar to the more permissive enacted in Mason, Logan, and McLean counties, versus the more restrictive ordinance on the table now.

"It's simply a matter of fact that these provisions will make a project infeasible from a developer's perspective," said EDP Renewables attorney Amy Antoniolli.

Phil Luetkehans, the UCTC attorney, maintained that it's possible for wind farm construction to continue under the proposed amendment, which is similar to those he championed in counties like Livingston and Christian.

"Wind is not impossible under 3,000 feet. Not even close. It just takes more work. It's not impossible to have a limit on how much the wind turbines move after the permit. Do the work," he said. "You're spending millions of dollars to do the work. Do your homework first so we don't have to try catch up later."

The Tazewell County Zoning Board of Appeals plans to reconvene in the Tazewell County Boardroom at 5:30 p.m. on June 30 to continue its discussion as it drafts a recommendation for the county board.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.