PRINCETON — By 10:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 12, the Bureau County Board had approved a majority portion of the Walnut Ridge Wind Energy Project, which will span nearly 14,000 acres across Ohio, Walnut, Greenville, Manlius and Bureau townships.
The meeting drew more than 50 residents from all over the county and beyond who were there to either show support or opposition of the wind project. Because of the large number of guests at the meeting, board members were forced to conduct business in the upstairs courtroom room at the Bureau County Courthouse.
BHE Renewables had applied for 127 conditional use permits for the project — 123 of those permits being for wind turbines.
Despite a recommendation of denial of all 127 conditional use permits by the Bureau County Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) last month, the county board approved all but nine permits on Tuesday.
The permits denied included turbines which would have been located within a close proximity of the Wilt and Geldean restricted landing air strips. Turbines denied were Nos. 76, 89, 108, 109, 112, 113, 124, 128 and 155.
The process to vote on all 127 permits took nearly two hours. The county board broke down the permits into 12 groups of 10 towers, one group of three towers and one group that included the operations facility, two substations and temporary staging areas for the project.
For each group, Bureau County Zoning Officer Kris Donarski read off the location of each permit and the landowner of the property. She also pointed out the permits that both the Bureau County Regional Planning Commission and ZBA had recommended denial.
For each vote, county board members were asked to raise their right hands to voice whether they approved or denied the permits.
There were only four county board members who consistently voted down each permit including Heather Thacker of Ohio, Jim Donarski of Princeton, Marshann Entwhistle of Princeton and James Thompson of Sheffield. Board member Robert Albrecht of Ohio abstained from every vote.
When it became evident the board would approve the majority of wind turbines, a number of residents who showed up to express opposition for the wind project dwindled out of the courtroom.
One man spoke loudly as he got up to leave, “I know where this is going.” While another man claimed the board’s decision was “a slap in the face to the zoning board of appeals.”
Aside from the 127 conditional use permits, the board also approved the decommissioning and site restoration plan agreement for the project and granted an extension of the 2008 conditional use permits that were extended in 2011 and requested again in 2014. The extension is to allow Walnut Ridge to install one substation, one staging area, 99 power poles and an associated transmission line in Walnut and Ohio townships.
Before the board had the chance to discuss and vote on the project, a public comment session was held where board members heard from 12 individuals who spoke about the project. Each speaker was given five minutes to make their comments. The only two people to speak in favor of the project were BHE Renewables President Thomas Budler and BHE Renewables and Walnut Ridge Project Manager Alicia Knapp.
Most individuals who spoke out against the project talked about the negative impacts the turbines had on the health and well being of residents — the effects of noise and shadow flicker produced by the turbines.
Kendall Guither, a resident living between Walnut and Ohio, talked about vibrations of the turbines and how the noise is amplified when the air is more dense. He said he now suffers from motion sickness from the shadow flicker of the turbines. His wife, Katherine, also talked about the health concerns she’s experienced since the turbines were erected near their home. As a sufferer of noise and sleep deprivation, she said after visiting an audiologist, she was diagnosed with stress-induced tinnitus caused by her body interpreting the noise of the turbines. Katherine said the only time she feels normal is when she was away from her home.
Richard Porter, a Rockford-based attorney, representing 78 landowners in the vicinity of the project’s footprint who all object to the project also spoke to the board. He started out his comments by asking board members to raise their hands if they attended all 40 nights of the ZBA hearings — no hands were raised. He also asked who had read the 200 exhibits from the hearings and transcripts generated by the meetings. Only one board member, Loretta Volker of Princeton, admitted to reading the exhibits.
Porter said during the ZBA’s hearing, the board found specific findings of fact that Walnut Ridge would be injurious to the public health, safety and welfare of residents, to the enjoyment of their properties and would also negatively impact property values. He pointed out how the county board’s decision to approve the project would be arbitrary and not based on any facts, but rather a decision swayed only by the economic benefits of the project.
During Budler’s comments, he assured the safety of the project. He pointed out how the project meets the requirements of the Bureau County zoning ordinance and takes into account the noise requirements and shadow flicker. He said the project was committed to limiting shadow flicker to no more than 30 hours per year and said there have been no scientific conclusions on the health impacts of wind turbines.
Budler said BHE Renewables and its sister companies own more than 1,800 turbines throughout the U.S. and to date has not encountered a situation where the turbines caused negative health impacts.