DeWitt County Board softens blow for wind farm

New regulations on 'shadow flicker,' setbacks rejected in face of public support

 Andrea Rhoades testifies before the DeWitt County Board, with Chairman David Newberg at center. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Andrea Rhoades testifies before the DeWitt County Board, with Chairman David Newberg at center. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

CLINTON — The DeWitt County Board rejected most new regulations on a proposed wind farm Wednesday in the face of a packed audience of residents urging passage.

The board amended and passed a measure on aircraft detection lighting, but rejected the advice of its own Zoning Board of Appeals in voting down new rules that would have extended the open space required around a wind turbine and banned "shadow flicker" falling on a neighboring house.

Dozens of residents, all wearing bright yellow T-shirts urging a yes vote on all three proposals, packed the DeWitt County Courthouse in Clinton for the special meeting Wednesday night on wind-farm regulations. The zoning laws will set standards for the Alta Farms II project, developed by Kansas-based Tradewind Energy and planned for more than 100 wind turbines to be set across 24,000 acres between Waynesville and Wapella northwest of Clinton.

The proposed wind farm has proved to be controversial, with opponents rallying around a group called DeWitt County Residents Against Wind Turbines.

Board Chairman David Newberg declared early on that the four dozen people who signed up for public comment on the issue would all be heard. The overflow crowd extended into the lobby, and public comment lasted more than two and a half hours.

"Wind energy is important to the future of DeWitt County," said Tom Swierczewski, project developer for Tradewind Energy, who said he also represented 200 local landowners eager to lease space to the wind farm. He argued against the new regulations, calling them "anti-wind" and that "the purpose of these amendments remains stopping wind energy."

He was backed by Tradewind Energy colleague Brandon Storm, who called the proposed 1,640-foot setback between wind turbines and property lines "an unjust distance" and "a project-killer." Storm said only 3 percent of the project area would qualify for a turbine under that rule.

Yet Andrea Rhoades of Kenney, one of the leaders of the opponents' group, said that would only require Tradewind to pay for waivers to get permission to install the turbines from neighboring landowners. She also argued on safety issues like ice throw from the turbines.

Betsy Shifflet of Waynesville Township urged the board to "protect the safety and quality of life of residents of this county."

"Many people move to this county for the view and the peace," said Alan Ruwe, a longtime Illinois Power employee who worked 12 years at the nuclear Clinton Power Station. He said he now lives in the midst of a wind farm put up around his home just north of Decatur and that his wife says "it's like living in the middle of a runway at the airport." He said it was rattling to live with the perpetual "swoosh, swoosh" of the rotating blades.

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"it's like living in the middle of a runway at the airport."

Alan Ruwe

"I don't want people invading my property with their sound and their noise," said Dale Naffziger.

"They define my neighborhood in a negative fashion," added Karl Kemnitz. "All I see behind me is a sea of red lights."

"This is not a farm, it's an industry," said Scotty May of Wapella. "We cannot re-create a lost landscape."

Many residents argued in favor of an extended setback, as "shadow flicker" from the shadows cast by the rotating turbines can be unnerving and cause the same health issues as strobe lights.

Olivia Klemm used a flashlight as a prop and flashed it on and off in front of the board before Newberg called on a sergeant-at-arms to halt it. "You say that's disturbing?" Klemm said. "You say that's not responsible? That's what I'm talking about."

Yet the board rejected the expanded setback and an outright ban on shadow flicker. Board member Terry Ferguson proposed compromises on both issues. He suggested not an outright ban on shadow flicker, but allowing 15 hours a year for a turbine shadow to fall on a house. He called that "an effort to compromise a little bit" as "zero is a hard number to get to." He also proposed reducing the proposed setback from 1,640 feet to twice the height of a turbine tower. That, for example, would have called for a setback of 1,120 feet for a 560-foot tower.

Yet the board rejected both amendments, and ultimately rejected both proposals. Only Ferguson and Melonie Tilley voted in favor of a ban on shadow flicker, and only Tilley voted for the 1,640-foot setback. So the existing county zoning law stands calling for the setback to be 1.1 times the height of a tower, or just over 600 feet for a 560-foot tower.

The board did approve a slightly altered amendment on Aircraft Detection Lighting Systems. Board member Lance Reece introduced an amendment that substituted for one passed by the ZBA calling for Alta Farms II to use a high-tech ALDS that only activates the blinking red lights atop the towers when an aircraft is detected in the area. Reece's amendment said only that a wind farm must "pursue" such a system, with the County Board ultimately acting as arbiter.

Reece called the demand for high-tech ALDS "a little too narrow" and said his proposal was "not so pigeonholed."

"This frees them up to find the best solution," Ferguson added. "I think it's a good way to go."

The board passed Reece's amendment, with only Tilley voting against.

Swierczewski welcomed the board's actions, calling it "an important night for our efforts."

The decision on red aircraft warning lights was something for Rhoades, who said the battle will now go to the actual special-use permit Tradewind will need to start installing the Alta Farms II turbines.

Swierczewski said, "We are absolutely continuing to move forward with our project. Our goal is to submit the application in August and be back in front of the County Board by year end."

"Our next course of action if we're not happy with how this went is to address the special-use location hearings," Rhoades said after the four-hour meeting. "So we plan to do that vigorously."