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Panel blows off wind farm

DIXON – Lee County’s zoning board rejected a proposed wind farm Wednesday, reversing its traditional support for such projects.

In a 3-2 vote, the zoning board of appeals recommended denial of Ireland-based Mainstream Renewable Power’s proposed 53 turbines. The county board, which meets May 21, has the final say.

The decision ended a decade in which the wind energy industry largely drove the county’s approval process. The industry’s foes viewed the board’s longtime members as rubber stampers of wind projects – in a county that saw the state’s first wind farm.

The board approved previous wind projects after just one meeting. That changed for Mainstream’s petition. The board met 32 times on the proposal.

Members Tom Fassler, Craig Buhrow and Mike Pratt voted against the wind farm. Bruce Forester and Gene Bothe supported it.

Reading a statement before the vote, Pratt said he based his decision on the highest and best use of the land in question, rather than the profits and tax revenue the project would bring. He also expressed concern about the negative impact on neighboring property values.

“The character of the neighborhoods in the project will change,” Pratt said.

Fassler said the evidence against the project was overwhelming.

“We can talk about the taxes we get out of this, but the first thing is the health and well-being of the people of the county,” he said. “There are a lot of negatives to this project. I think the petition is incomplete.”

Members also noted the lack of a plan to handle the possible abandonment of the turbines. Such a plan would seek to avoid the prospect of old, inoperable turbines marring the landscape.

Forester, however, said the county’s zoning ordinance doesn’t require a decommissioning plan. That issue, he said, could be handled when the county issued the special-use permits.

“Mainstream offered to put together some type of decommissioning proposal,” he said.

Buhrow said he saw why Hamilton and East Grove townships appealed to Mainstream for the wind farm – their low population densities and access to power lines. But other projects have been built on higher ground, he said, referring to the fact that much of Hamilton is a flood plain.

Buhrow also said he wasn’t “enthralled” with the engineering aspects of the project, adding he also worried about the lack of a decommissioning plan.

The usually silent Bothe made no statements before the vote.

After Wednesday’s meeting, Vince Green, Mainstream’s project manager, said his company always intended to produce a decommissioning plan. Such issues, he said, could have been addressed in the approval of the project’s special-use permit.

Green said it’s fair that wind projects should be scrutinized and debated.

Mainstream’s proposal was part of a three-county wind farm, which includes Whiteside and Bureau counties. Last year, Whiteside County approved nine turbines, while Bureau County’s zoning panel recommended against Mainstream’s plan for 19 turbines, saying it didn’t meet the county’s requirements.

Mainstream withdrew its proposal in Bureau County, saying it planned to submit a new one.

Over the last decade, Lee County’s zoning board was known to approve findings of fact for wind farms that came word for word from wind energy companies. Its decade-old wind ordinance came largely from one of the firms, wind industry foes said.

Last year, the zoning board recommended a more stringent wind energy ordinance after more than a year of hearings, but the county board rejected it.

Mainstream, which took part in that process, said its wind farm proposal largely followed the outlines of the rejected regulations.

The zoning board met Thursday to approve minutes and other documents from the wind farm meetings, members said.

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It's not over yet ...
DIXON – A proposed Lee County wind farm has a fighting chance.

On Wednesday, the project suffered a big setback when the county's zoning board voted 3-2 to reject it. But ultimately, the 24-member Lee County Board has the final say.
On Thursday, Lee County Board Chairman Rick Ketchum, D-Amboy, said he would vote to override the lower panel's decision. Two other members, Marvin Williams, R-Dixon, and Ann Taylor, R-Amboy, agreed with Ketchum.
Still two others, David Gusse, R-Dixon, and Judy Truckenbrod, R-West Brooklyn, backed the zoning board's decision.
Ten members were undecided, and eight couldn't be reached for comment. Another board position is vacant.
Ireland-based Mainstream Renewable Power proposed 53 turbines in Hamilton and East Grove townships in the county's southwestern corner.
A majority of zoning board members said the project would hurt the rural character of the area. They also said the company failed to reveal the turbine model it planned to use and a plan for taking down the turbines if the project ends. Members also questioned whether it was wise to put a wind farm in a flood plain.
The zoning board's decision ended a decade in which the wind energy industry largely drove the county's wind farm approval process.
On Thursday, Sauk Valley Media tried to reach every county board member about the proposed wind farm.
Ketchum, who became board chairman in December, said he would "certainly" vote to override the zoning board. The foes of the wind farm were the minority, he said, but better organized than the proponents.
Williams said he had no problem with wind turbines as long as they don't infringe on neighbors' rights. "We need something to generate tax revenue," he said. "I think we should go forward with it."
Taylor said she has always favored wind turbines. "I have stood under them for several hours," she said. "I really can't see the objections."
Gusse, however, said it would be "damn foolishness on our part" to approve the wind farm after the zoning board held 80 hours of meetings to review the project. He said he didn't like the idea of putting a wind farm in a flood plain.
Truckenbrod said she was against the project. "Considering the problems we've had in this county (with wind farms), it would be hard to watch us go through that again," he said.
Dick Binder, R-Compton, said he was leaning against the project, but said he would make no commitment before getting more information.
Bernie Buckley, R-Dixon, put himself in the undecided camp, but he was concerned about decommissioning. "I think there are too many loose ends out there still," he said.
John Nicholson, R-Franklin Grove, said he was undecided. But he wanted to know why the zoning board rejected the wind farm after voting for a finding of fact that the petition complied with the county's wind energy ordinance.
The county board is expected to vote on the wind farm at its May 21 meeting.
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