PRINCETON — A final decision on whether to extend the conditional use permits for the proposed Walnut Ridge wind farm will not be made until at least March 17.
More than 100 people filled the large courtroom in the Bureau County Courthouse Monday night for the resumed Zoning Board of Appeals meeting. The meeting had begun Feb. 17, but was recessed after 30 minutes because the developer of the project did not have legal counsel.
Project manager Bill French was back for the 7 p.m. meeting with his legal counsel, Jim Griffin, at Monday’s meeting as were attorneys Tom Boswell and Rick Porter. Boswell and Porter were representing a coalition of Friesland Farms, Larry Gerdes and other objectors to the Walnut Ridge project.
The Walnut Ridge conditional use permits and associated variations were granted to the Midwest Wind Energy developers in August 2008, November 2008 and December 2008 for 150 turbines, two staging areas, two substations and 99 transmission line support structures. The permits and variations expire after three years, so Walnut Ridge came before the board to request an extension of the permits until Dec. 31, 2014.
Bureau County State’s Attorney Pat Herrmann said the board would first consider whether Walnut Ridge had a “vested interest” in the project. According to Bureau County rules, if a conditional use permit has not been acted upon or exercised within three years, and if “there is little or no vesting of interest,” the permit becomes null and void.
Griffin said Walnut Ridge was continuing with the development of the project, but wanted confirmation the permits would remain valid.
“We want absolutely no uncertainty as to our zoning rights,” he said.
Griffin said Walnut Ridge has spent $3.2 million on the project since receiving the permits, and is moving forward to full development.
Griffin then called French to testify. French said that, to date, the company has executed leases with landowners, erected four more meteorological towers, conducted soil borings and environmental studies, analyzed the electric grid connection, negotiated underground pipeline and highway crossing agreements, and was soon to purchase the substation sites.
French said part of the reason the project isn’t further along is that the country is still coming out of a huge economic downturn. French said that downturn caused lending institutions to change their requirements before lending.
But French said the $500 million project would be completed.
“It’s not a matter of if Walnut Ridge gets built,” he said. “It’s a matter of when.”
But just how vested the developers are in the project was the theme of Porter’s cross examination.
Porter led French through a lengthy, and sometimes heated, series of questions. He pointed out no turbines or substations have been built, no building permits have been requested, and no turbines have even been ordered.
Porter then pointed out many of the projects that have been conducted since Walnut Ridge received the permits either could have or possibly should have been done before the permits were issued.
Porter questioned why more meteorological towers were erected and studies conducted after the permits were issued, and said virtually nothing done had required the use of the permit.
Porter then questioned the significance of the $3.2 million figure. He said on a $500 million project, that was significantly less than 1 percent of the total.
“The percentages are relevant, but that’s still a lot of money,” French said.
During closing statements, Griffin repeated that Walnut Ridge had already spent millions of dollars on the project, and therefore had a vested interest.
Porter disagreed, and cited case law that said the amount of money spent proportionate to the total amount of the project needed to be considered.
After a recess to allow Herrmann to examine the case laws, the meeting resumed at 9:55 p.m. Herrmann said his advice to the board was that proportionality needed to be considered. And how much was enough? One case showed a 27 percent investment was a vested interest, while another case ruled that one-half of 1 percent was not a vested interest.
After going into closed session, the board returned to open session at 10:40 p.m. On a 4-1 vote, board members that Walnut Ridge did indeed have a vested interest in the project. Board members Jim Rapp, Kerry Jaggers, Barry Welbers and Keith McLane voted in favor, while Jamie Nickelsen voted in opposition.
But the objectors and their witnesses are going to get a chance to be heard. Porter frequently tried to bring the questioning back to whether the permits should be extended because of issues such as declining property values and quality of life issues, but Herrmann consistently sustained Griffin’s objections that the questioning was irrelevant. Herrmann said the board needed to decide first if Walnut Ridge was vested, because if it wasn’t, the permits would not be extended.
So the meeting was recessed until 7 p.m. March 17, at which time the debate will resume and the objectors will be heard.
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