Decision time on Lee County wind rules
DIXON – Eighteen months ago, Lee County started considering changes to its wind energy regulations.
On Tuesday, that process could end – for now.
In fall 2010, the Lee County Board formed an ad hoc committee to study wind energy issues. It was made up of members of the Zoning Board of Appeals and three other residents.
After it completed its process 6 months later, the Zoning Board began drafting a new ordinance. It finished in February.
The board didn’t tinker at the edges. It proposed replacing the existing ordinance, which has been around for years. That document is 3 pages; the proposed one, 26.
County Board Chairman Jim Seeberg is calling for a vote on the Zoning Board’s proposal at the County Board’s meeting Tuesday, despite some members’ calls for a delay.
As with most counties, the biggest issue is the required distance between wind turbines and the houses of those not participating in wind farm projects.
Under the current ordinance, turbines can’t be any nearer than 350 feet to the property lines of nonparticipants.
However, since the Mendota Hills wind farm went up in 2003, the county has required that wind farms have a setback of 1,400 feet from homes’ foundations – a little more than a quarter mile. Such a requirement is part of a company’s special-use permit.
The proposed ordinance would require that the distance be 1,400 feet or 3.5 times the height of a tower, whichever is greater. For instance, a 500-foot turbine would require a setback of 1,750 feet.
Last month, the County Board set up a special committee to review the Zoning Board’s proposal. Most of the committee members wanted to increase the setback distance to 2,000 feet – from the property line, not the home’s foundation.
That would be the longest setback in Illinois. One other county has 2,000 feet, but that is from the foundation.
The proposed ordinance also has a home seller protection program available for homes within a mile of a turbine, much farther than the setback itself.
The program involves a complex procedure that compensates homeowners who are struggling to sell their homes because of nearby turbines.
The program is a big reason that Mainstream Renewable Power opposes the proposed ordinance. The Ireland-based company is planning a wind farm in Lee, Whiteside and Bureau counties.
The company considered the costs of such a program unpredictable.
John Martin, the senior project manager for the three-county wind farm, said the proposed ordinance would perhaps be the toughest in Illinois.
It includes regulations for such things as the abandonment of turbines, noise and shadow flicker – none of which is addressed in the existing ordinance.
Wind farm opponents say the proposed decommissioning policy isn’t strong enough. Such policies are designed to take down turbines, rather than letting them stand as abandoned albatrosses.
The rules require that such turbines be taken down within a year after they stop operating. Financial security for decommissioning would be collected over 15 years of operation.
That financial security would be based on the cost of taking down a turbine, subtracting the salvage value. Some say that removing the salvage value from the amount reduces the incentives for companies to follow through.
The proposed ordinance calls for companies to do noise studies before and after wind farms are built, which isn’t required by ordinance now. Such studies would be performed by a third party.
Opponents wanted a specific limit on noise – 5 decibels above background sound. But the Zoning Board said it wanted the county to have flexibility to deal with noise issues.
Members of the County Board’s special committee wanted more time to address issues such as decommissioning. But Seeberg said he wanted an up-or-down vote on the Zoning Board’s proposal.
Because two townships have objected to the ordinance, the County Board will need a three-fourths vote to pass it, more than the usual simple majority.
Seeberg, the chairman, plans to allow six residents to speak about the ordinance before the vote. They made their requests to speak at this week’s Executive Committee meeting.
All others will have to comment during the public input portion of the meeting, which is near the end, after the board has made its decisions.
Seeberg, R-Ashton, said he plans to vote for the ordinance.
He said he has received feedback from farmers supporting it.
“If I own land, I should be able to get to do what I want with it,” he said.
In interviews, two other members, Bill Palen, R-Dixon, and Isaac Mercer, D-Dixon, said they also plan to support the proposal.
Mercer said he believed wind farms help the local economy.
Palen said the County Board could make changes later, but he said it was important to pass the proposed ordinance because of the existing one’s 350-foot setback.
“We should pass this ordinance, then if anything needs adjusting, it can be done by amendment,” he said.
Member Charlie Thomas, R-Dixon, was one of the special committee members who pushed the 2,000-foot setback.
He said he doesn’t like the proposed ordinance, but he hasn’t decided how he would vote.
“I think it needs some fixing,” he said. “I don’t know what alternative there is at this point in time. There are a lot of variables here, depending on what the chairman says.”
Member Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, said he hasn’t decided. He said he is reviewing the minutes of the special committee and a “whole bunch of information” that has been sent to board members from both sides of the issue.
“We need to make some decisions soon, whether it’s this month or next,” he said. “We’ve been dragging on the last couple of years.”
What's in the proposal
The proposed wind farm ordinance for Lee County is 26 pages long. The current ordinance is only 3 pages. Here are the highlights of the proposed regulations:
• SETBACKS: The current ordinance requires that turbines be 350 feet from nonparticipating landowners' property lines, though the county has been requiring through special permits that turbines be 1,400 feet from homes. The proposed ordinance requires turbines be 1,400 feet or 3.5 times the height of a tower, whichever is greater.
• NOISE: The proposal requires wind energy companies do third-party noise studies before and after wind turbines go up. They must follow Illinois Pollution Control Board standards, which critics say are weak and go largely unenforced.
• SHADOW FLICKER: Companies must present studies showing that the average number of hours of shadow flicker on a nearby home may not be more than 10 hours per year. If the company receives a complaint that a homeowner is experiencing more than that, the company must shut down turbines during times when shadow flicker is occurring.
• DECOMMISSIONING: Abandoned turbines would be required to go down within a year after they stop operating. The owner would provide proof that the necessary amount of financial security for decommissioning has been received by Lee County. The amount of financial security shall cover the projected cost to decommission turbines, subtracting salvage value. Financial security would be collected over the first 15 years of operation.
• HOME SELLER PROTECTION PROGRAM: The program is a complex appraisal process, in which the homeowner and the wind energy company each would choose an appraiser. In the end, if appraisers find that a home sold for less because of nearby turbines, then the wind energy company would pay the difference.
The Lee County Board will meet at 9 a.m. Tuesday on the third floor of the Old Lee County Courthouse, 112 E. Second St. in Dixon.
The board is expected to vote on a proposed wind farm ordinance.
For an agenda for this meeting, minutes from past meetings, or more information, go to www.countyoflee.org or call 815-288-5676.