Big crowd at wind debate no surprise for Whiteside County

Officials hired facilitator for first time

ROCK FALLS – Debates over wind turbines can be passionate.

Neighbors often don’t want turbines nearby. Others make money for leasing their land to wind companies.

From Massachusetts to New Mexico, meetings on wind farms bring big crowds. And that’s the case in the Sauk Valley.

Wednesday, the county Planning and Zoning Commission held a hearing that lasted 2 1/2 hours on a wind energy company’s proposal for nine turbines.

About 70 people attended. The county appeared prepared.

Usually, the commission meets in a small meeting room at the County Courthouse in Morrison. This time, however, Stuart Richter, the county’s planning and zoning administrator, reserved space at the Rock Falls Community Building.

Eighty chairs were set out. Enough for the crowd – about a fourth of whom were County Board members.

Rock Falls Police Chief Mike Kuelper and Sheriff Kelly Wilhelmi stood by the door behind the audience, providing security.

Former Judge Tim Slavin served as the hearing’s facilitator. Many of the procedures were similar to a trial – testimony, cross-examination, closing statements. A court reporter was on hand.

Richter, who has been in his job for 27 years, said this is the first time the commission has used a facilitator or a court reporter.

The county got a facilitator because officials thought the hearing would overwhelm the commission, Richter said.

The county is paying Slavin $210 an hour during the hearing and $90 an hour for outside research and other services, for which Mainstream will reimburse the county, County Administrator Joel Horn said.

“He [Slavin] has a lot of experience controlling that kind of environment. We wanted to give everyone the opportunity to express their views,” Horn said.

During cross-examination, residents could ask questions of representatives of the wind energy company, Ireland-based Mainstream Renewable Power.

Many of the residents opposed the project. So the temptation was strong for them to make statements and give their opinions during cross-examination.

Slavin made sure they stuck to questions during that portion of the meeting. Time was reserved later in the hearing for residents to give testimony of their own about the project.

The hearing resumes April 18. Mainstream is expected to bring expert witnesses, and other residents are slated to testify.

Mainstream’s proposal also includes turbines in Lee and Bureau counties.

To attend

The Whiteside County Planning and Zoning Commission meets at 7 p.m. April 18 at the Rock Falls Community Building, 601 W. 10th St. in Rock Falls.

Mainstream Renewable Power will bring expert witnesses to make the case for its wind farm.

For more information on the hearing, call Whiteside County’s zoning office at 815-772-5175.