Wind proposal on blustery trip toward uncertain end

County board will see again with modification from committee

Gordon Woods / Journal

Tom Swierczewski, of Tradewind Energy, addressess the county board before an overflow crowd forced relocation of the meeting to Court Room A of the county building.

CLINTON — DeWitt County Residents Against Wind Turbines have addressed county officials twice to propose amendments to the local wind energy ordinance.  On Monday, Tradewind Energy took its turn to respond.

Tradewind development director and manager of the Alta Farms wind project Tom Swierczewski was blunt in some of his comments to members of the county board’s land use committee.  He essentially told committee members that adopting the proposed changes would kill the wind farm project.

“Alta Farms could not site a single wind turbine in our project area that we’ve been developing since 2008,” Swierczewski.

Swierczewski said he was not surprised that the proposed amendments to the wind energy ordinance would “have the result of completely prohibiting wind farm development in DeWitt County.”

While the group has proposed changes to the wind energy ordinance, many of its members have worn “no wind turbine” buttons during county meetings on the topic.

“The information presented by this group (DeWitt County Residents Against Wind Turbines) contains some misinformation, including a lack of understanding of wind farm development and operations, and the recently updated DeWitt County wind regulations,” Swierczewski said.

The Alta Farms wind project was delayed for several years because of the economic downturn.  The project began in 2009.  Tradewind had anticipated the beginning of construction in 2011 or 2012.

The Alta Farms project was reinvigorated in 2015 because of the improving economy, Swierczewski said.  

“To date, we total 200 leases executed with our host landowners in DeWitt County,” Swierczewski said.  

The $500 million project would cover approximately 22,000 acres, including 80-140 wind turbines generating a potential total of about 344 megawatts.

The wind farm could ultimately generate some $80 million in tax revenue during its first 20 years of operation, including about 67 percent of that revenue going to the Clinton Unit 15 School District, as much as $2.7 million per year.

Swierczewski said he felt the county’s wind energy ordinance was not in need of updating because it was recently updated in April 2017.  

“The group requesting these changes are clearly attempting to stop all wind development in the county,” he said.

Representatives of DeWitt County Residents Against Wind Turbines have not, during meetings with county officials, specifically addressed opposition to the planned wind farm, nor suggested a ban on wind energy development in the county.  However, the group has focused on what it feels is a need for the amendments to the county wind energy code and on the detrimental effects residents in those areas have reported as a result of wind farm operations.

From the point of view of Tradewind representatives, however, the proposed amendments, such as doubling the set-back of individual wind towers from nearby structures to more than 3,200 feet, would severely reduce the number of possible towers, making the project no longer viable.

When it comes to potential health effects, the group proposing the ordinance amendments, and those opposing the wind farm altogether, do possess some studies and anecdotal information that supports their position.

Widespread reports of low frequency noise and flicker caused by the rotating shadows of the turbines, disrupting living conditions of nearby residents, has gained traction in recent years.  Even some who support wind energy and those neutral on the subject acknowledge the reports might have some validity.

More concretely, the results of some scientific studies of the effects of wind towers on local residents have bolstered the negative health claims, which include disrupted sleep patterns, among other issues.

Tradewind representatives have said the design of their wind farms includes reducing any negative consequences of the turbines’ operation.

Chris and Ken Shaffer, who proposed the ordinance amendments, spoke again to the land use committee on Monday.  

Chris Shaffer told the land use committee than sound experts recommended at least a 3,000-foot set-back between towers and homes to “mitigate noise that might be created by wind turbines.”  Under county code, the minimum set-back is 1,750 feet.

She also said some counties had provisions to mediate problems with electrical interference caused by wind turbines, including cable TV, Internet and WiFi and other signal interference.

The group’s recommendations include site approval applications, notification of public meetings and open houses and a reduction of proposed wind tower heights to a maximum of 499 feet.  Limiting the height of the towers to 499 feet or less would affect the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) lighting requirement by reducing the number of warning lights required on tower tops.

Their proposal also would increase the set-back requirement to six times the height of a tower, “or 3,250 feet,” whichever is greater than any primary structure.  They also propose a set-back distance of 1,620 feet from an adjacent property line.

Some residents have reported they might not have built homes in the area of the project had they known about it.

The Clinton Journal reported in 2009 that the Alta Farms wind energy project was entering its next phase and that the meteorological studies exceeded the firm’s expectations.

“We are incredibly enthusiastic about the studies,” then Tradewind Energy development director Duane Enger told the Journal in 2009.  Environmental studies also had been conducted at that time, including the wind farm’s effect on habitat.

The Journal also reported about the wind energy project in northwest Macon County as DeWitt County officials monitored that project as it progressed.  The Alta Farms project covers areas in northern DeWitt County to the west and to the east of Rt. 51.

The proposed changes seen Monday by the land use committee will next move to the full county board and then could advance to the regional planning commission and the zoning board of appeals before returning to the county board for final action.

The zoning board could pass the changes on to the full board as either “recommended” or “not recommended.”

Once it was the land use committee’s turn Monday to discuss the proposal and what members would recommend to the full county board, confusion set in.

Some committee members conceded that the topic was complicated and that they, too, were learning their way through the issue.  But, some modifications suggested by the committee to the proposed amendments seemed arbitrary to some residents in the audience, who were vocal in their dissatisfaction.

Ultimately, land use members agreed to send recommended changes to part of the amendments, leaving others for the full board to consider.

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