County Planning, Zoning, and Ordinances Are Supposed to Protect Residents
In August 1994, Monroe County released its first Comprehensive Plan designed “…to guide public policy for future development while preserving the environment.” The Comprehensive Plan was subsequently reevaluated by the Monroe County Comprehensive Planning Commission and reapproved by the Board of Appeals and County Commissioners in 2005 and 2015. A summarizing County “Land Use and Transportation Map” was added to the plan in the last two plan revisions.
Land use categories – zoning demarcations – frame the heart of the plan and are designed to protect public safety and health, property values, critical infrastructures, natural resources, residential quality of life, and traditional economic land use practices.
Five land use categories are identified and defined in the plan: residential, commercial, agricultural, conservation and industrial. The last three categories are important to consider for industrial-scale wind energy development proposals.
Agricultural zoned land is to be used for cultivation and farm-related business. The plan calls for protection of farm ground and maintenance of farming enterprises, but numerous county-approved zoning variances have permitted sub-division of farm ground for private residences.
Conservation zoned land is designated the “least suitable for any development” and, according to the plan, should be kept in its natural state. Dubbed by the county as the “Conservation Corridor” it includes the rugged hill prairie and karst sinkhole region. There are agricultural inholdings and scattered residences and several rural residential developments in this corridor.
The industrial zoned land is designated for manufacturing and distributing operations in areas that will be safe and attractive for industrial activities. As with the above categories, residences and scattered residential development areas have been allowed. The plan calls for an expansion of industrial use acreage to benefit future economic development.
In 2011, developer Joe Koppeis began an initiative to construct a 3500-acre wind energy conversion system with approximately 400 feet tall turbines near Valmeyer. However, he did not seek the required variance and that initiative apparently was dropped. At that time Monroe County did not have a wind energy conversion system ordinance. The Comprehensive Plan Subcommittee of the Monroe County Comprehensive Planning Commission drafted an ordinance which was approved by the County Board of Commissioners in 2012. The Wind Energy Conversion System (WECS) Ordinance was drafted in part by reviewing existing ordinances from other counties in northern Illinois, where wind powered electric generation began in the early 2000s.
Mr. Koppeis has now recently proposed a newer, much larger, wind turbine initiative involving 600-foot towers on 15,000 acres in Monroe County. These would be among the tallest on-shore towers in North America. The St. Louis Gateway Arch is 636 feet tall; the Baldwin Energy Complex smokestacks are 600 feet tall; such a monolithic project will forever transform Monroe County.
More importantly for our current concerns, the same counties from which we developed our current ordinance have amended their ordinances over the last couple of years. These counties now apply much more restrictive regulations. In their cases, public outcry, pushback and litigations have catalyzed their relooking at public health and safety standards, the realities of nearby private property devaluations, and the requirements for indemnifying decommissioning costs.
We, the people of Monroe County, must reevaluate the sufficiency of Monroe County’s ordinance. The current ordinance allows wind energy conversion systems only in agricultural- or conservation-zoned areas. Why? Fifty 600-foot towers isn't a “wind farm,” it’s a wind factory. And why shouldn’t factories be in a zoned-industrial district?
Consider a single example of public safety when industrial development isn’t restricted to industrial zoning. Our current county ordinance mandates a setback for 600-ft towers of 750 feet from a neighbor’s property line and 660 feet from public roadway and utility rights of ways. The manufacturers of the bigger towers stipulate that in the event of a tower failure (breakoffs, fire, collapses), emergency first responders and repair crews establish a 1500 feet evacuation radius around the tower until falling parts cease falling. We guarantee you that if you were to drop burning parts on a neighbor’s house, lawsuits and blame could fly not just to the developer, but all the way to a landowner-lessor's bank account who is receiving lease income from the wind-energy developer. The current Monroe County ordinance also might be considered a reckless public endangerment. Boone County Illinois recently expanded its setback to ½ mile, Livingston County to ¾ mile, and several states, counties in other states, and Canada and the European Union consider 600-foot turbines to be industrial-scale with 1-mile setback requirements.
Finally, what do we citizens, as taxpayers and property owners, do if the wind energy generation system business fails? The county’s current ordinance stipulates that the developer, as a part of the application process, must submit a decommissioning plan along with an irrevocable letter of credit and establish an escrow account to fund decommissioning. Many other counties are now discounting the ‘guarantees’ of letters of credit and are moving to a requirement for surety bonds. This issue requires careful rechecking. The last thing we need here is another Wall Street-style bailout – the developer, his investors and a few local land lessors get the profits while the rest of us inherent the risks and losses.