Before, wind firms drove process

Today, it is harder to get turbines OK’d

Published: Wednesday, March 6, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, March 6, 2013 10:16 a.m. CDT

DIXON – Once upon a time, getting approval for a wind farm in Lee County was relatively simple.

Those days are gone.

For the latest proposal to build wind turbines, the county had 26 meetings that took up 65 hours.

In the past, the county’s Zoning Board of Appeals voted for a wind farm at the end of just one night’s hearing.

At a 2006 board meeting, members had three items of business on their agenda, one of which was the Shady Oaks wind farm near Compton. From the minutes, it appears as if one of the other issues – a subdivision matter – took up a good chunk of the 2-hour meeting.

The original Shady Oaks proposal was for 80 turbines, considerably more than the 53 in the current proposal before the zoning board.

Nine members of the public spoke during the 2006 hearing – four in favor, three against, two neutral.

After the input, the board got to the matter of approving the findings of fact – the determinations about how the wind farm would affect such things as utilities and the environment.

Gary Gehlbach, the attorney for the wind farm applicants, presented the proposed findings of fact. Those findings stated, among other things, that the turbines would have no effect on the character of the neighborhood and public health and safety.

The board approved the wind farm applicants’ findings word for word. Members voted 4-1 for the project, with Tom Fassler dissenting.

Four years later, Ireland-based Mainstream Renewable Power, which bought the project, went before the zoning board again, proposing to add 10 parcels to the proposal.

Mainstream was ready for opposition. It brought in expert witnesses, including one for the issue of turbine noise. It had union officials testify about how wind farm construction means good-paying jobs. Participating landowners in the project also spoke in favor.

Of those testifying during public input, seven were for the project, three against. Three didn’t state a position.

According to the board’s minutes, the members accepted the already-written findings of fact. The record doesn’t state whether Mainstream proposed the wording, and officials couldn’t recall who did.

As with before, the zoning board finished its work in one night, with Fassler again alone in dissent.

Mainstream later sold the wind farm to Goldwind USA, a subsidiary of a Chinese company. The wind farm was completed in 2012.

Recently, the zoning board completed the hearing process for Mainstream’s new wind farm proposal, which includes 53 turbines in Lee County.

This time, the county is taking a go-slow approach to approving the findings of fact.

The zoning board’s next regular meeting is Thursday, but Zoning Administrator Chris Henkel said the board isn’t expected to address the findings of fact at that meeting.

He said the state’s attorney’s office is looking at the legalities involving the next step of the process.

Bob Logan, the village president of Franklin Grove, who has regularly attended zoning board hearings, said companies have a right to submit proposed findings of fact, but he questioned whether the board should accept such proposals word for word. The end product could be biased, he said.

After the zoning board makes a recommendation on Mainstream’s latest proposal, the Lee County Board will vote on the issue.

Companies get flexibility on turbines

DIXON – When Lee County approved a wind farm near Compton and West Brooklyn in 2006, it was slated to have 80 turbines.

That number dropped to 52 when the county signed off on a revised plan for the Shady Oaks wind farm in 2006.

The project, completed in 2012, ended up with 71.

But the Lee County Board never approved the increased number of turbines. So what happened?

Chris Henkel, the county's zoning administrator, said Lee County approves wind farms by parcel, not turbine. In other words, if a wind energy company wants more turbines in a parcel and such a change meets setback requirements, it can do so, he said.

"It's a flexible number with our petitions," he said.

The county finds out about changes when it approves building permits, which the zoning administrator handles.

Some counties handle the process differently – approving wind farms by turbine, not parcel, Henkel said.

Now, the county is considering Mainstream Renewable Power's plan for 53 turbines. If the Zoning Board of Appeals approves the project, it would likely allow flexibility in the number of turbines, Henkel said.

Last year, the Whiteside County Board approved turbines in the southeastern part of the county for the same Mainstream project. The company said it planned nine turbines, but it could increase the number if it meets all other requirements, said Stuart Richter, the county's planning and zoning administrator.

Richter, however, said he would like to check with the state's attorney's office or the County Board beforehand if Mainstream planned to increase the number.

Bob Logan, a Lee County resident who regularly attends zoning board meetings, said the company should have to get approval for an increase.

In Shady Oaks' case, the county should have had another hearing, he said.

"These changes have impact on neighbors," said Logan, Franklin Grove's village president. "A serious effort should have been made to involve West Brooklyn and Compton."

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