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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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.
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.