CLINTON — People speaking against and in favor of a special use permit for the Alta Farms wind energy project received 30 minutes for each side during the April 25 county board meeting. But, ultimately, this meeting was about board members’ debate and specifically what prevented a veteran of the board from voting “yes.”
Board members were precluded from considering any public comments not already given in evidence, most of which came out during a series of exhaustive public hearings conducted by the county’s Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA).
Six members of the county board voted to grant the permit, contradicting the ZBA recommendation to reject the application. Five members voted against the permit. One member abstained. Seven affirmative votes were required to pass the measure.
While board members opposed to the permit largely felt Tradewind’s application failed on all counts to meet the criteria laid out in the county’s wind energy ordinance, board member and chairman of the board’s land use committee, Terry Ferguson, focused primarily on three aspects of the project he found troubling, namely potential interference with Doppler weather radar, the project’s effect on property values and future development in the area of the wind farm.
Ferguson introduced a series of conditions to attach to the motion to grant the special use permit. Fellow member Melonie Tilley felt, however, that the board should consider only testimony given before the ZBA.
It is not clear whether Ferguson’s amendment to the motion would constitute a violation of that rule, however, conditions often are added to motions to try to ensure a project is conducted in accordance with county objectives.
Ferguson said he and county zoning administrator Angie Sarver had worked on the list of conditions since last October.
“We developed a list of concerns that were missing in the SUP (special use permit) application,” Ferguson said.
Some of those conditions included tighter restrictions on the number of hours a residence could be subjected to shadow flicker. Dealing with surcharges on farmers from aerial crop application contractors also was part of the conditions, as was a condition dealing with drainage districts in the area of the wind project.
The conditions also included language to clarify that Tradewind would include a decommissioning plan with their special use permit application.
“In my opinion, conditions are a good thing,” Ferguson said. “Everybody knows what they’ve got to do.”
Board member Dan Matthews said, however, he didn’t feel the attachment of conditions to the permit created an adequate application by Tradewind.
Zoning administrator Angie Sarver reported she still did not have signatures of all of the participating landowners in the project, something she requires for permits. And, several board members felt Tradewind failed to meet most of the requirements of the ordinance.
“What action are you asking us to take, Terry,” Matthews asked Ferguson.
“This is an effort to apply the initial duties that we gave ourselves during the ordinance process,” Ferguson said. “For years, we’ve been applying conditions to special use permits as they come forward. Some have been pretty minor, but more often than not, they don’t come through clean.”
The amendment to the motion to approve the permit passed by a 7-4 vote with one abstention. The amendment included nine conditions.
Still, Ferguson said he was concerned about whether the project would have an adverse effect on surrounding property values for non-participating property owners.
He said experts on both sides did well in presenting their cases.
“The pro side did a good job presenting that it doesn’t diminish values, the con side did their study that said that it does,” Ferguson said. “Therefore, what are we supposed to do? I guess it’s a matter of whatever you believe.”
Testimony given about possible interference on Doppler weather radar caused by the wind energy project also was on Ferguson’s mind.
Ferguson mentioned Tradewind’s testimony that the wind farm would not cause a problem with weather radar. Tradewind representatives reported that officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) concluded the project would produce little if any interference.
“I’m sure they never thought there would be a guy in the audience from right here in DeWitt County who had such a high level of understanding and knowledge of the NOAA situation,” Ferguson said. “The part that bothered me was that Tradewind didn’t deny that what he said was fact.”
Ferguson said he felt the county had a good wind energy ordinance but that it was far from perfect.
Ferguson related a personal story about his own farm in which he essentially asked if wind energy development would restrict the ability of landowners to build more homes.
“I think we’ve got a chance to learn here,” he said. “I just want everyone here to think hard if they think all these criteria were met.”
The board voted 6-5 with one abstention to reject the special use permit application, Ferguson hesitating and then voting “no,” along with Melonie Tilley, Nate Ennis, Travis Houser and Dan Mathews.
David Newberg, Camille Redman, Christy Pruser, Lance Reece, Scott Nimmo and Jay Wickenhauster voted to approve the permit.
Cole Ritter abstained.
Several years ago, before the Tradewind Energy project began to draw public scrutiny, Ferguson advised the members of the board during that time that reports were emerging about possible negative consequences of wind energy developments.
In 2015 representatives from DeWitt County zoning and the board attended hearings in Macon County for the E-ON wind energy project. Those visits were in preparation for modifying and strengthening the DeWitt County wind ordinance.
The Clinton Journal began reporting about the Tradewind Energy project in 2008, publishing a series of stories throughout 2008 and 2009.
The Journal continued to periodically report about the project as well as report about DeWitt County officials monitoring progress with the E-ON wind project in Macon County from 2014-2016 in preparation for wind development in DeWitt County.
Zoning administrator Angie Sarver and former board member Sue Whitted reported the information to the land use committee and county board during that time.
Members of the public rarely attended land use meetings before 2017.