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URBANA — Plans are afoot to develop a new wind farm in southern Champaign County by the same company involved in a future wind farm in Piatt County.
Apex Clean Energy is negotiating with Champaign County property owners to lease land for a wind farm with 50-75 turbines, to be called Open Prairie Wind, said Josh Hartke, Illinois field manager for Apex.
This development is at least five years away from starting construction, and Apex hasn’t yet applied for any permits from Champaign County, he said.
“It’s in very initial stages,” he said.
Apex has been talking to property owners as a related issue has been going on at the county government level — bringing the county’s ordinance on wind and solar farms into compliance with a recent change in state law.
The legislation signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Jan. 27 prohibits counties from establishing moratoriums on new wind and solar farms or banning them within their boundaries.
It also prohibits counties from imposing requirements on prospective wind and solar developments that are more strict than the new statewide standards.
Champaign County has yet to bring its own more restrictive ordinance into compliance with state law, and that’s sprouted yet another issue involving the county’s Zoning Board of Appeals.
The zoning board, which heard extensive objections from local residents on the change to the county ordinance, declined to recommend it to the county board. But the Environment and Land Use committee is bringing the change up for approval at the county board’s next meeting, set for Tuesday.
Approval will require 17 “yes” votes from the 22-member county board, because three villages — Mahomet, Philo and St. Joseph — have filed formal protests.
If the county board doesn’t pass the amendment, Champaign County’s ordinance will be out of compliance with state law — “not a good situation for us to be in,” County Executive Steve Summers said.
Also up for approval at that meeting will be Summers’ proposal to replace three of the seven zoning board members whose terms end Nov. 30 — Thomas Anderson, Nolan Herbert and Larry Wood — because the zoning board wouldn’t sign off on the ordinance changes.
County board Democrats agreed with Summers’ proposal at a meeting Tuesday, over the objections of five of the board’s six Republicans who were present.
Summers has called for replacing Anderson, Herbert and Wood with applicants Cynthia Cunningham of St. Joseph, Christopher Flesner of Thomasboro and Brian Andersen of Champaign.
The zoning board has the responsibility, whether it is in favor of an ordinance or not, to bring the county into compliance with state law, Summers said, “and they (the current board) chose not to.”
Republican county board member John Farney said all three zoning board members up for replacement want to continue serving, and he views Summers’ proposal to replace them as retaliation for their position on the wind and solar ordinance change.
Farney contended the change in state law removed authority from counties to govern their own territories in the interest of Democrats’ push for green energy.
The zoning board listened to constituents and heard overwhelming testimony against making the changes, “so they said, don’t make these changes,” Farney said.
If he’d been on the zoning board, he’d have voted the same way, he said.
“So the policy in Champaign County now is you vote against it, we’re going to take your position away,” Farney said.
Fellow county board Republican Aaron Esry said all seven zoning board members voted the same way on the ordinance change, so he assumes that means the other four will also be up for replacement down the road.
Regardless of the zoning board’s recommendation, Esry said, the county board has the final say.
“They’re advisory,” he said of the zoning board.
Fellow county board Republican Diane Michaels agreed.
“We can replace all the board members we want, but we still have the bottom line here in this room,” she said to the rest of the board.
County board Democrat Stephanie Fortado pointed out failure to bring the county ordinance into compliance with state law exposes the county to liability.
“Yeah, they have to be replaced, and it’s a shame,” she said.
Fellow Democrat Eric Thorsland said the zoning board needed to work with the county board in a way that would bring the county into compliance with state law, “and they refused to do this job.”
Hartke said Apex hopes the county can create an ordinance in compliance with statewide standards.
“Our goal is to work with the county,” he said.
A specific wind-farm location hasn’t yet been determined, but the southern part of the county is preferred for its wind potential and its good location to plug into the power grid, Hartke said.
The Piatt County Board approved Apex’s request for a special-use permit for a wind farm in that county last month.