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Thursday, Feb. 4, 2010 04:54 pm

A setback for wind power

Strict requirements might jeopardize green energy for Sangamon County

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Sangamon County board members are considering an amendment to make green energy developers plant wind turbines farther from people who don’t want them. The amendment penned by board member Tom Fraase “is about an inch thick,” says Tim Moore, chair of the Public Health, Safety and Zoning committee, and would make the existing wind farm ordinance more stringent.

County rules state turbines can’t be less than half a mile from incorporated areas with a population of less than 10,000, or 1.5 miles from areas with more people. They must be at least 1,200 feet from a non-participating homeowner, and the amendment would require even greater setbacks from those homeowners.

Concerned that a potential wind farm would reduce property values, create noise pollution or present a fire hazard, homeowners showed up to three informational meetings held in January.

“We’re not opposed to wind energy, but we’re concerned about the proximity to homes as it relates to property values, health issues and everything else,” said Cathy Bomke at a Jan. 25 meeting in New Berlin. Bomke, cousin of state Sen. Larry Bomke, collected about 450 signatures last year in a petition for more setbacks.

Steve Frank, New Berlin village president, witnessed growth spurts in the towns of Chatham, Rochester and Sherman, and worries that a wind farm could restrict New Berlin’s own progress. “We’re in the growing mode here, and I don’t want to be landlocked if a wind farm comes in within half a mile,” Frank said at the meeting.

Committee members explained the finer points of the Wind Energy Conversion System, or WECS, ordinance and the rationale behind it. The current regulation was passed in 2006, after the committee looked at 37 Illinois and five out-of-state ordinances. The current ordinance is among the state’s most restrictive, but Moore says it gives developers enough information to know how to build a wind farm in the county.

American Wind Energy group, which is eyeing land between New Berlin and Pleasant Plains for a 25,000-acre, 200-turbine wind farm, says tightening zoning requirements might squeeze the project out of existence. Wind proponents worry about Sangamon County’s viability as a green-energy producer.

“If the county expands the setback requirements to a mile or so [from nonparticipants] you’re not going to see development in Sangamon County, period,” says Kyle Berry, a Springfield attorney who works in the wind industry. Berry also advises Illinois counties on wind zoning and is a co-founder of the Illinois Wind Energy trade group.

Ahead of the meetings, the zoning committee looked at scientific studies concerning whether wind farms have an effect on property values. Norm Sims, executive director of the Springfield-Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission, wrote in a report it was “difficult to answer” whether turbines had an impact, but found no compelling evidence that wind farms depress property value.

Sims’ report mentions a December 2009 study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which concluded wind farms didn’t have a “consistent, measurable, and statistically significant effect on home sales prices.” For the study, researchers looked at the sales of nearly 7,500 homes between 800 feet and 10 miles of a wind farm.

“It was really the first study of its kind,” says Matt Aldeman, technical assistant at the Center for Renewable Energy at Illinois State University. “There was a definite need for it, based on all of this opinion that properties around wind farms tend to drop in value.”

The Center reported in June 2009 that the 1,118 megawatts of wind energy produced in Illinois annually generates $11.4 million in property taxes and $4.3 million extra income for landowners who lease to developers. Aldeman estimates roughly one permanent, full-time job is created per every 10 turbines.

Illinois is one of 24 states that requires electricity providers to have a portion of their power come from renewable sources. By 2025, 18 percent of Illinois power must come from wind, leaving proponents wondering where Sangamon County will contribute.

“Regardless of what’s happening at the local level, state policy is pointed strongly in the direction of wind projects,” Barry says.

Matthew Schroyer is an independent journalist based in Springfield, where he grew up. He enjoys blogging about political events, natural disasters, music and journalism. He can be reached at mschroyer@gmail.com.

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