A proposal is currently before the Sangamon County Board that would end a project to create local green jobs and clean energy. I decided to check out rumors I've been hearing that the county board may kill a wind farm proposed west of Springfield and there's definitely reason for concern.
The county has a "moratorium" on wind farms while it considers zoning rules. The current rules require turbines to be 1,000 feet from any structure and 1,200ft from a neighboring property line. That's already the most restrictive setback requirement in Illinois. The next largest setback rule is 750ft in Peoria county.
I'm told that some Illinois wind power producers dislike the Sangamon county ordinance because it could set a new standard that's too restrictive. Despite that, the company proposing a new local wind farm, Sangamon Wind, still agreed to the rule.
Now, there's a proposed change that would be even more restrictive. The "perimeter setback" to the property line of the project would be increased for turbines over 400ft, like the ones proposed by Sangamon Wind. This would protect pieces of ground on neighboring property from being near a wind turbine even if there are no houses or other structures nearby. It would essentially give landowners veto power over their neighbors who do want to participate in the project.
As if that weren't enough, two county board members offered separate floor amendments at their last meeting extending the setbacks even further to 1,850ft or 2,640ft. Thankfully, the proposals were postponed but the issue will come back at a future meeting.
I spoke with a representative of Sangamon Wind who told me that the new guidelines would effectively ban wind farms in Sangamon county.
Farmers and other landowners across Illinois sound generally happy with the extra revenue they're getting from hosting wind turbines on their property. The wind industry supported 5,000-10,000 Illinois jobs in 2010. Could Sangamon become the one county backward enough to turn down good jobs during a recession?
There was some opposition at previous public hearings on the ordinance. Residents near the project had reasonable questions. A few others brought up a long list of far-fetched objections and internet conspiracy theories about wind power generation.
Ultimately, there are some people who just don't want any change to their scenic views of corn and soy fields, even though wind farms preserve the rural nature of the area. It would be ironic if opponents stopped the wind farm only to see the area later developed with a subdivision or mega hog farm.
There's also a great deal of support, including land owners who already agreed to have wind turbines on their property. Added tax revenue will benefit the rural New Berlin school district, which is below the state average on per-pupil spending.
Wind power is facing an unusual level of scrutiny. In contrast, the county board didn't hesitate to approve a dirty energy project in the recent past. An expansion of the Viper Coal mine near Williamsville was not only approved, but given $900,000 in local tax breaks over ten years. They also received $4.7 million in grants from the Illinois Coal Development Fund, and that's hardly the first time the out-of-state owners have been given large coal subsidies.
To my knowledge, Sangamon Wind isn't asking for the same special county tax subsidies or state grants given to Viper mine. Tax revenue from the project will benefit local schools and government.
Sangamon county needs more jobs and the nation needs more clean energy. It's puzzling that the county board is having such a difficult time doing something that should be a no-brainer.