Wind farm ordinance to full board Sept. 24?
By Stuart R. Wahlin
Sept. 16, members of the Winnebago County Board Zoning Committee pored over minutiae in a 15-page proposed text amendment to the county’s zoning ordinance that would open the door to commercial wind power generation in the county.
Because the wind industry has yet to blow into Winnebago County, no rules exist to govern them.
The measure was first proposed in April by Minneapolis-based Navitas Energy, Inc., which wants to include agricultural land in southwestern Winnebago County in a 100-turbine wind farm straddling the convergence of Ogle, Stephenson and Winnebago counties.
Navitas plans to site 40 of the turbines in Winnebago County, and would lease property from participating landowners for up to $6,000 per year for each turbine location.
According to the Navitas Web site: “Landowners receive rents for the turbines placed on their land, injecting money into the local economy. Counties receive tax revenue from the project based on the assessed real estate value of the wind farm facilities. During construction, local businesses and suppliers receive the benefit of 80-100 construction workers on site for a period between nine and 18 months, as well as the creation of construction jobs. After construction is complete, several local full-time operations, maintenance and service jobs are created.”
Despite generating electricity locally, utility rates are not expected to be affected, because Navitas would be required to sell the power to ComEd, rather than directly to consumers.
Permitted use vs. special use
The proposal is being presented by Navitas as a permitted use, meaning no special-use permit is required from a wind farm developer as long as the criteria in the ordinance are met. When the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) heard testimony last month, however, some citizens argued a special-use permit should be required so that individual proposed sites could be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
As a special use, any proposed wind farm project would have to be considered by the ZBA, giving residents a say in each case before a final decision by the County Board. Citing this reason during the Sept. 16 zoning meeting, Steve Schultz (R-2) moved to amend the text to require a special-use permit.
“There may be unique factors relative to a particular siting of a particular project that, by allowing it under the special-use, you would provide for that to come out in the testimony, so whatever the special circumstances of that particular location were, it could be evaluated individually,” he explained.
“I’ve heard strong concern represented by the citizens of this county that the establishment or the construction of the wind power-generating facility is a significant event for any neighborhood, and they wanted to have an opportunity to have a say, to express their concerns about a particular project,” Schultz said. “This is such a substantial change in the utilization of land that it ought to be a special use.
“We have spent substantial amounts of time evaluating the heights of garages,” he added. “We’ve spent a substantial amount of time discussing whether an Ag outbuilding could be utilized for the renovation of antique luxury cars.” Schultz argued a special use ought to apply to “something that is gonna have a phenomenally greater impact on communities.”
He also noted other counties typically assign a special use, not a permitted use, to wind farm projects.
Ogle County, in which Navitas already operates, is one such county to have opted for a special use.
According to Ogle County Planning & Zoning Administrator Mike Reibel, “There was never a debate or consideration given to commercial wind farms being granted permitted-use status in Ogle County.
“I believe that, due to the magnitude of wind farm projects, and their impact—real and/or perceived—the public expects an opportunity to be heard,” Reibel explained. “Also, since each project is somewhat unique, a special use provides an opportunity to the county to impose specific conditions upon the project to ensure the protection of the health, safety and general welfare of the county.”
Stephenson County also approaches wind farms as a special use, but that wasn’t always the case.
In 2008, after having researched wind farms in Minnesota and Wisconsin, Stephenson County Zoning Director Terry Groves decided to pursue a switch to permitted use. About eight months after the permitted use was approved by the Stephenson County Board, however, litigation followed.
“We had a company that wanted to expand its operation that already got approval [under the criteria of a special-use permit],” Groves explained. “We got, of course, sued over the permitted use.
“The company didn’t want to come in and apply under a challenged ordinance, so the county board went and reversed their decision on the permitted use, back to a special use,” he said.
Although Groves indicated things are now proceeding smoothly under the special use, he’d still like to give permitted use another shot.
“My permitted use had higher standards, more restrictive standards, than the special use has now,” he noted. “But, the objectors—they didn’t like it, because they wanted public hearings. They wanted somebody like the county board to have oversight on it, instead of my office or the standards that I had.”
Although there would have been no public hearings, per se, under Groves’ plan, public meetings would have taken place in order to address any concerns from citizens. Furthermore, he said, individuals who may not have agreed with a decision would have had the option to appeal.
“I love the permitted use and, if it’s approved [in Winnebago County], I’m bringing mine right back up again,” Groves said, while noting his belief the public has the right to a say in the process. “I think there should be some sort of mechanism for the public to address concerns, rather than just having someone start to dig in the backyard and, all of a sudden, you’ve got a 60-unit wind farm.”
Although sympathetic to concerns, Frank Gambino (R-14) said he felt any apprehension could be alleviated through the crafting of a permitted use.
“I think if we get those right, I don’t know that special use is needed,” Gambino asserted.
“Permitted use would help support this industry in this county, as long as we get it right.”
Andrew Evans, Navitas project manager, said of the permitted-use proposal, “I think what we’ve tried to do here is essentially lay out all of the issues that typically come up in wind farm hearings, and essentially put them all in the ordinance so that we have to address them.
“The same issues come up at almost every single special-use hearing,” he added. “And instead of hearing those again and again and again for each individual wind farm, we’ve essentially put them directly into the ordinance. So what we have left is an ordinance that’s significantly more restrictive than any other ordinance you’re gonna see in Illinois, other than certain counties that have adopted ordinances specifically to keep wind out of the county.”
Evans assured an “open and clear” process.
“It’s gonna show clear government intent, and it’s gonna lay out clear hurdles that a potential developer has to jump to appropriately site a wind farm in the county,” Evans said. “It takes a lot of the subjectivity out of the process, and it’s gonna encourage investment in the area. …It takes a lot of the uncertainty out of it, which is potentially gonna scare away a developer.”
Hastings agreed it would be more desirable to spell out exactly what is expected of wind farm developers as a permitted use than to leave doubts as to whether a project is worth pursuing as a special use.
Schultz, however, reminded colleagues that most wind farms in other counties are approved under special use.
Although the committee’s chairman, Paul Gorski (D-3), agreed a special use may not be necessary, he supported Schultz’s motion as the only way for citizens to voice their opinions when new wind farm projects are proposed for other areas of the county.
After about an hour of discussion, the motion to amend failed in a 3-3 tie. Gambino, Angie Goral (D-7) and Bob Hastings (D-13) voted “no.”
It is possible, however, the issue could be reconsidered during the Sept. 23 meeting, or by the full board.
Definition of an occupied building, setback distances considered
The committee spent 90 minutes wrestling over what constitutes an “occupied building.”
As presented, the ordinance stated: “‘Occupied Building’ means a residence, school, hospital, church, public library or other building used for public gathering that is occupied and in regular use as of the date the permit application is submitted, or which although unoccupied or not in regular use, is in a condition suitable for occupation or regular use without substantial alteration or repair. A building used primarily for storage, such as a garage, storage shed, barn, or other outbuilding shall not be deemed an Occupied Building for purposes of this Article.”
But a planning commission from Seward, an unincorporated community where turbines are to be located, thought the definition needed to be expanded to require setbacks from agriculture-related structures.
“A lot of [farmers] spend more time in their livestock building or in their machine shop than they do in their house, probably,” Seward Township Clerk Jim Monge explained.
Monge said he wasn’t nearly as worried about safety setbacks from other farm-related buildings, like corn cribs, which are seldom occupied.
Reportedly, Seward could file a legal objection, requiring a super-majority vote by the county board to pass the measure, 21 of 28 votes.
During discussion, most committee members agreed the setback should apply to farm buildings used for more than just storage.
Dave Yeske (R-2) made a motion to amend the “occupied building” definition to include livestock barns, farm-related garages and machine sheds that may be visited from time to time. The amendment passed with only Hastings voting “no.”
In its present state, the ordinance requires a setback of 1.1 times the height of a 441.1-foot-tall turbine for occupied buildings of participating landowners. A setback of 1,200 feet is required from non-participating properties.
Later in the meeting, Schultz made a motion to increase the setbacks to 1.5 times the turbine height and 1,600 feet, respectively.
Evans quickly pointed out wind farm setbacks are typically only 500 feet.
“The intent there is to protect people,” Evans said of the 1,200-foot setback. “The ability of the developer to site turbines is significantly limited by setbacks. And if you start increasing the setbacks… there is the potential that you’d be crafting an ordinance that wouldn’t allow wind farms to happen at all.”
Evans conceded: “I won’t say that there are no areas on earth that don’t have larger setbacks than that. I can say that the counties nearby that do have wind farms—1,200 is a very conservative residential setback.
“Given the tendency of the county to have smaller parcels, you would be significantly hindering the ability of the developer to site wind turbines,” Evans argued.
Although his motion ultimately failed, Schultz retorted: “The fact that 1,200 feet, while consistently stated as very conservative, is substantially less than setbacks where, even admittedly, there are wind farms on properties where setbacks are greater than 1,200 feet. I’m just concerned that it’s been represented in such a way that it’s sorta like, ‘You do it this way, or you don’t do it at all.’”
Unable to make its way through the entire 15-page proposed ordinance, the committee adjourned after 3-1/2 hours, but will take up the remaining points Sept. 23 with the intention of presenting the final product to the county board the following night.
From the September 23-29, 2009 issue
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