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Watch where you sit

On Tuesday, the Lee County Board voted 12-9 to approve a proposed wind farm in the southwestern part of the county. 

That happened after 27 sessions of a public hearing held by the Zoning Board of Appeals. Is everyone wiser for it? Here are some lessons learned from the experience:

• Watch where you sit and with whom you talk: When covering meetings and other events, I sit near the action so that I can hear what's going on, but does anyone see bias in this seating arrangement?

Where you sit can be especially problematic covering courts. Usually, courtroom galleries are divided in two – supporters of the defense take one side, those for the prosecution sit on the other. So where should a reporter sit?

At meetings of the Lee County Zoning Board of Appeals – which take place in the old courthouse's courtroom – the gallery is similarly divided. Thankfully, people also can sit in the unoccupied seats of County Board members, who meet in the old courtroom once a month.

Presumably these seats are considered neutral territory. I sat in the front, but as it turns out, wind farm foes would sit in the same area. This is public seating, after all.

Sure enough, a wind farm supporter approached me at Tuesday's County Board meeting. He accused me of bias because I sat with wind farm supporters. I defended myself, saying that I don't choose who sits near me.

To be sure, wind farm foes often were similarly suspicious. Whenever a wind farm representative or supporter spoke with a zoning board member before or after a meeting, the opponents took notice.

In a contentious environment, people are ready to believe the worst.

• If you want a wind farm, go someplace without a history of turbines: This may be a lesson learned by wind energy companies. In the recent case, Ireland-based Mainstream Renewable Power's proposed wind farm covered parts of Lee, Bureau and Whiteside counties.

Bureau and Lee counties have wind farms and plenty of residents who don't like them. Even before Mainstream proposed its wind farm, Bureau County toughened its wind energy ordinance. After months of hearings, the county's zoning board recommended against Mainstream's plan for 19 turbines.

Lee County had a marathon of hearings, amounting to nearly 70 hours. Its zoning panel rejected the project 3-2. Fortunately for Mainstream, the full County Board approved the 53 turbines, but the company suffered a lot of heartache to get to that point.

In Whiteside County, the zoning commission held a handful of hearings over a couple of months for Mainstream's plan to put nine turbines in the southeastern part of the county. Even as brief as the hearing process was, it would have been even quicker if Greg Wahl of Wahl Clipper fame hadn't objected to the turbines' effects on wildlife at his nearby prairie.

Whiteside County has no wind farms, so opposition to them is still minimal. Probably not conincidentally, the zoning board passed Mainstream's proposal unanimously and the County board gave it a 19-6 vote.

The county's zoning officer, Stuart Richter, seemed to understand the magnitude of a wind farm, but few other county officials did.

Richter drafted the conditions and findings for the wind farm and sent them to the state's attorney and county administrator for review. Neither responded, he said.

Lee County doesn't have an administrator, but if its state's attorney hadn't responded, he or she would have received a storm of criticism.

• Seek out best practices: Lee County is the birthplace of wind farms in Illinois, with the first one built nearly a decade old. Before, wind farm proposals sailed through the zoning board – when opposition was little.

But Zoning Administrator Chris Henkel and other county officials realized that was no longer the case. And they, to their credit, changed their strategy.

They hired a facilitator, reimbursed by Mainstream, to run the hearing. The facilitator, retired Judge Tim Slavin, knew the job. He was given authority to enforce the board's new procedures. While annoying, Slavin's enforcement was ultimately effective. Both sides regarded him as fair.

Lee County officials got this playbook from Whiteside County, showing their wisdom in seeking out best practices.

David Giuliani is a reporter for Sauk Valley Media. He can be reached at dgiuliani@saukvalley or at 800-798-4085, ext. 525. 

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