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Q&A: Tazewell County Board chair Zimmerman addresses wind, solar farm issues, broadband access

Tazewell County Board chairman David Zimmerman spoke to WCBU about renewable energy projects and broadband access in the county.
Joe Deacon
Tazewell County Board chairman David Zimmerman spoke to WCBU about renewable energy projects and broadband access in the county.

Tazewell County leaders are trying to maintain some control over renewable energy projects in the county after Gov. JB Pritzker signed a new law establishing statewide standards for wind and solar farms siting.

At its Feb. 22 meeting, a divided county board voted down a proposed wind farm ordinance sought by United Citizens of Tazewell County, with board chair David Zimmerman casting the tie-breaking vote. A Minnesota-based firm’s potential solar farm project also failed to receive board approval.

In a conversation with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon, Zimmerman explains why he voted against the proposed wind farm ordinance.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

A few weeks ago, you cast the tie-breaking vote against a wind farm ordinance change in Tazewell County. Why did you feel you wanted to vote in this direction?

Zimmerman: Two reasons, actually. The first reason is the ordinance would have been illegal right out of the chute. In lame duck session, the Illinois legislature took siting authority away from counties and put it within the state, and they set the guidelines. The ordinance as proposed by the group in southern Tazewell County, United Citizens, it would have been illegal as soon as we passed it.

So what did the proposed ordinance change entail?

Zimmerman: Well, it was having setbacks that were like 3,000 feet. Essentially, even if the state hadn't had passed the new siting authority, I probably would have opposed this bill because for all intents and purposes, it would have disallowed any wind farm in Tazewell County, the setbacks were so great. So that was the reason that I voted against those.

The board also voted to reject a solar farm project sought by SolarStone Partners. What was the reasoning behind that vote?

Zimmerman: That was a difficult decision, but it was unanimous. It was up on Grosenbach Road in northern Tazewell County. It was essentially in a residential area, and we would have had to change the zoning back to (A-1). That's the kind of spot zoning, for one, that we don't like to do. And then secondly, it was opposed by virtually all the neighbors in that area.

The (Fondulac) Park District land is where it would have been, and we've talked to the park district. I think if they had to do it over again, that they would do a better job of communicating with the neighbors in the area to get their buy-in on this solar farm also.

As you mentioned, in the lame duck session, there was legislation passed and later signed by Gov. Pritzker that somewhat limits what counties and local governments can do in terms of regulating where solar and wind farms can go. What are your concerns with this new law?

Zimmerman: Well, from the wind farm side, it's helpful because they have a standard set of rules across the entire state of Illinois. From a county's perspective, we always oppose any bill that takes away local authority, whether it's any kind of ordinance. So, we oppose that and we sent a pretty strong letter to the governor and the legislature voicing that. The problem is that having Chicago legislators telling us how to do our zoning in Tazewell County, sometimes we find it kind of offensive.

So are you open to allowing other renewable energy projects such as solar and wind farms in Tazewell County?

Zimmerman: Very much so. Very much so, I'd like to see wind farms. I think they bring some benefits, road improvements for some of our poorer townships. It brings in property tax revenues for the schools. As a matter of fact, we currently have 15,000 acres under contract for solar. So they're coming to Tazewell County.

Shifting gears slightly, what are your thoughts on the potential Wolf Carbon Solutions/ADM pipeline and how that might impact Tazewell County?

Zimmerman: That's a good question because I'm getting mixed signals. I don't know that much about the CO2 pipeline. I know that it would start in Clinton, Iowa, end up in Decatur, and it would cut through Tazewell County. So I'm hearing two different things. I was invited to a seminar by a local environmental organization that I know is very much against that. Then I read an editorial in the Chicago Tribune on Monday, and they say that this would be a boon for Tazewell County. So the jury's still out on how Tazewell County will come down on this issue; we don't have a lot of authority in that regard, but we can voice concerns if we have legitimate concerns.

A boon in what way?

Zimmerman: Well, that's a good question, because you read the editorial and it doesn't seem to be a boon for Tazewell County, but it seems to be a boon for — the argument they were making — for the environment, that in this basin under central Illinois they could capture, I think it was 150 billion cubic yards of this CO2. They thought it would be good for the environment, but the title of the article or the editorial certainly gave the impression that it would be good for the citizens of Tazewell County, but the editorial didn't show any economic benefits for sure.

So what other land use considerations will Tazewell County need to decide regarding carbon and environmental issues?

Zimmerman: Well, on a more practical basis, farmers have the concerns of a pipeline going through, not that there's a lot of pipelines that go through Tazewell County right now. But when they put those in, they obviously tear up the crops, but the farmers (get) reimbursed for that. But long term, because of the compaction of the different cranes and bulldozers, it reduces the yields on those specific areas. But I'm not sure how Tazewell County would benefit, other than some temporary construction jobs as they come through the county.

Along similar lines to the Wolf/ADM pipeline, where do you stand on possible deep-well CO2 injection sites considered by Navigator?

Zimmerman: I honestly don't have an opinion yet on those issues. They haven't come to Tazewell County formally — either organization — and presented their proposals. As I understand it, they're working very diligently in Iowa right now and when they have everything squared there, then they'll come to Illinois. They go to the siting authority of the state, which I think falls under the Department of Transportation. Once they've given them a certificate of authority, then we can voice some of our concerns and the commission will take those into consideration.

Hypothetically, where would these possible injection sites be located? Are these primarily rural areas?

Zimmerman: They are, and I haven't seen a map that has the direct path. I've seen a general map that I saw in the newspaper ... where it would run, but I can't tell you specifically where it would go through.

One other topic we've discussed before: What efforts are being made to improve broadband access in rural parts of the county?

That's the $100 million question, and that's probably what it would cost in order for us to bring broadband to every household. We have taken some steps (but) there's not a whole lot of appetite on the part of the board to invest, and that's for a number of reasons. We have some members that are convinced that 10-20 years down the road, that it's not going to be broadband that we're looking at, but it's all going to be wireless. So why would we invest literally tens of millions of dollars now in order to make that happen?

Secondly, Tazewell County, runs fairly lean, very lean; that's why we have one of the lowest tax rates in the state of Illinois. So, to go after the grants that are available, it gets very complicated and then you have to have some matching funds that we don't have money set aside for that right now.

But we have talked to Starlink, and I've talked to some farmers that actually have Starlink — that's Elon Musk's low-orbit satellite (internet access) — and the people that have it really think it does a great job. It doesn't break up during storms, like maybe a dish or a high satellite orbit would do. So there's some possibilities there.

Comcast has applied for four separate grants for Tazewell County to bring broadband to different areas of the county. So I think a lot of the skeleton or the superstructure is there, it's just getting private companies to tie into those lines. So I think it'll happen, just not as quickly as maybe people in the rural areas would like it to happen.

Tazewell County has a committee looking into broadband access, correct?

Zimmerman: You know what, we did have a committee (but) it hasn't met for probably six to eight months. It's extremely complicated, and so I think at some point they just kind of threw up their hands and let Comcast and some of the other private firms (like) iTV3 — there are several companies that are looking at it and actually installing some broadband into Tazewell County now.

What kind of conversations were held about possibly putting federal ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) dollars toward broadband?

Zimmerman: When we had our initial discussions, that was one of our priorities that we were going to use. Again, it would have been not a very big amount, and so in order to use that, it wouldn’t have made much impact at all. I think that's when the chairman of the broadband committee thought that the resources would probably be better spent somewhere else, and so we're kind of at a standstill right now.

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.