A new wind energy battle is taking root in DeWitt County
WAPELLA — Every year on the Fourth of July, Brooke Cooper and her family head to a pasture on their rural property east of Wapella, aim their lawn chairs to the southeast and wait for dusk to fall and the fireworks show from Clinton to begin.
This year, while the sight line remained unobstructed, red blinking lights from the Radford’s Run Wind Farm near Maroa hampered their view.
“It was awful,” she said. “All we could see was a sea of red blinking lights from those towers.”
It also served as a reminder that a proposed wind farm could someday block that view, but for Cooper, that is only part of the problem.
“I am concerned about the medical issues for my son who has been diagnosed with ADHD severe 1, bipolar and has Asperger's (syndrome),” she said. “Little things that wouldn't affect others, might affect him.”
Tradewind Energy, developer of the proposed Alta Farms II wind farm, has not yet applied for the special use permit necessary to build turbines in DeWitt County. Preliminary plans indicate the turbines would be placed in a footprint from Waynesville to Wapella, and one proposal, Cooper said, places a turbine 1,800 feet north of her home.
“I bought these few acres of paradise to raise my family on and retire on,” she said. “I feel like that's not a guarantee anymore.”
Cooper is among an active group of DeWitt County residents opposing the wind farm, which would be the first in the county, before the review process has even begun. The final decision will be left to the DeWitt County Board, following hearings before the Regional Planning Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals.
Tom Swierczewski, a development director with Tradewind, said the company anticipated applying for the permit in late spring, but thinks the final application should be completed soon.
“This is DeWitt County’s first wind farm application, and so we want to make sure that they are comfortable processing our application,” he said. “It is taking a little bit longer than we would have liked, but it is still on schedule. We feel like we have a lot of community support and believe the project will be under construction sometime next year so it can be up and running sometime in 2020.”
Frank Black, a retired union laborer from rural Waynesville, is on board, saying, “A wind farm could bring in more money and more jobs. Logan and Macon counties did it. It's our turn now.”
Similar projects have popped up across Illinois in recent years. The Bishop Hill III wind farm between Moline and Peoria began operating in May. More turbines are planned in Knox County.
The Radford's Run project, which includes 139 turbines, began churning power in December, relaying electricity for a grid across 13 states. It is the biggest single-phase wind farm built in Illinois and the largest wind farm built in the U.S. last year, with a projected revenue of $6.1 million in property taxes over the next 30 years.
Three dozen landowners filed a lawsuit in December 2015 against developers E.ON and members of the Macon County Board to stop the project. They raised concerns about possible medical problems and pointed to reports that shadow flickers and ultrasound emissions from the device can cause health issues.
Groups like the American Wind Energy Association say the industry supports numerous jobs in building and maintaining the equipment, a key source of clean energy. A map by the trade association shows projects in a wide belt across the central and northern parts of the state, from the 67-turbine Rail Splitter Wind Farm in Logan and Tazewell counties to the 94-unit Pioneer Trail Wind Farm in Ford and Iroquois counties.
Some of the largest concentrations nationally are in Iowa, Minnesota and Texas.
Opponents of the DeWitt development, such as Andrea Rhoades of rural Kenney, vow to fight the project, airing concerns heard in other Central Illinois wind farm cases — the potential of reduced property values of homes near turbines, health-related issues and noise, among others.
After falling short of getting the county to place a moratorium on wind farms, Rhoades and others are hoping to convince the county board to pass a series of ordinance changes designed to protect residents located in the wind farm’s path.
On Monday, the Zoning Board of Appeals will consider six proposed revisions for recommendation to the full board. Approval could be later this month, prior to submission of the special use application from the company.
Several neighbors, and other DeWitt County residents, think those potential changes would help residents, whether they live near the proposed turbines or not, said Clinton resident Kristina Deerwester.
“I have severe, chronic migraines,” she said. “This condition is made worse by flickering or flashing of light as well as noise levels. I'm sure there are others who live within the area of the proposed farm who have issues with their health related to the same things I struggle with.
"I have no argument to the farm so long as measures are put in place to limit these disturbances. Setbacks, noise insulation, aircraft controls to allow the flashing lights to be limited, etc. are all reasonable restrictions to allow everyone to use and enjoy their property as they see fit.”
Several residents opposed to the wind farm, including Rhoades, plan to speak at the zoning board of appeals meeting.
“Zoning ordinances are in place to ensure that property owners can use their land as they wish as long as they don't disrupt their neighbor's ability to do the same,” she said. “That's what we are fighting for.”
Lease owner agreements are confidential, and often, vary quite a bit. Several potential lease owners declined comment, but DeWitt County resident Alice Aber said there was more to wind farms than just money for the property owners.
“On the short term, the local wind farm will provide jobs, additional income for local farmers who allow them on their land and be taking a huge step in preparing for a future,” she said. “The technology in wind turbines has advanced dramatically in the last five years or so and now they run much more efficiently.”
DeWitt County Board Chairman David Newberg said board members have already heard from both sides of the issue and are preparing to make an informed decision, once the special use permit is finalized.