Construction on the Green River wind energy project was slated to begin in the spring, but the chances of that happening are slim.
Work on the wind farm planned in Lee and Whiteside counties started 7 years ago. That project, which started with Mainstream Renewable Energy but has been owned by Geronimo Energy since December 2013, has been beset by delays that include a lawsuit and a state law passed last summer that has held up the permitting process on the local level.
The state Wind Energy Facilities Construction and Deconstruction Act was signed into law July 24, 2015. The bill was passed to streamline the regulation of siting, building, and removing commercial wind turbines that before had been handled inconsistently at the county level. The main objective of the Illinois Farm Bureau initiative was to provide a minimum of financial protections for landowners in the project areas.
Work slowed in July 2013, when a lawsuit was filed by 60 residents against Lee County and the previous owner, Mainstream. The court challenges cited nonconforming land-use issues, the turbines' effect on property values, and concerns about noise and shadow flicker.
The delays have led to the expiration of special-use permits granted by the counties. The permits expired Aug. 26, 2015, in Whiteside County, and they are set to expire in mid-May in Lee County.
Geronimo has asked for an extension in Whiteside County, but part of the new state law mandates that an agriculture impact mitigation agreement between developers and the state agriculture department must be in place before permitting is extended.
"They applied for an extension, but to go to a hearing, we need the mitigation agreement, and we don't have it yet," said Stu Richter, Whiteside County planning and zoning administrator.
The last Richter has heard from Geronimo was a Jan. 20 email that said it still was waiting to hear from the ag department.
The scope of the project has changed since Geronimo took the baton from Mainstream.
Plans now call for most of the Green River turbines to be in Lee County, with a few in Whiteside. The Bureau County part of the plan was absorbed into the Walnut Ridge project.
Richter said the arrangement in Whiteside County calls for seven turbines to start, with the possibility of expanding westward later.
"The turbines in this county are located mainly just east and north of Deer Grove," Richter said.
In Lee County, a permitting extension also has been requested, and in addition to the mitigation agreement, the lawsuit still hangs over the process there.
"The typical delay games are being played with the lawsuit, but we also must have the mitigation agreement in place before extensions can be dealt with," Lee County Board President Rick Ketchum said.
There must be a hearing on the permits before the county planning and zoning panel, which makes its recommendation to the County Board.
Enough time has passed to perhaps create another wild card.
"We have several new members on both of those boards, so the process could be a little different this time," Ketchum said.
Ketchum said the permitting was supposed to be on the board agenda this month, but plans changed when the mitigation pact didn't arrive. He is hopeful it will be in soon.
"We expect to see it on the agenda in March or April," Ketchum said.
Bureau County received the mitigation agreement for its Walnut Ridge wind project, and on Jan. 12 the County Board approved the project against the recommendation of the county zoning board.
"The ag department sent us a letter that we received on Jan. 5," said Kris Donarksi, planning and zoning administrator in Bureau County. "They had applied for permitting in October 2014, and our hearings started in January 2015, so we were grandfathered in."
Those hearings went on for nearly a year, before the County Board rendered its decision.
The zoning board advised that the project would not be in the best interests of residents. Several reasons were cited, including the expected negative impact on property values, and health and safety concerns.
The approval of the County Board, however, was contingent on the adherence to 12 conditions by the owner, BHE Renewables. Those conditions apply to the construction process and operations.