MENDOTA - The fight continues for rural residents opposed to construction of a solar farm on the edge of Mendota. Although the LaSalle County Zoning and Appeals Board last week denied the request by DG Illinois Solar, LLC (owned by NextEra) for special use for a solar farm on East 4th Road, that decision is non-binding. The final vote rests with the LaSalle County Board, which has approved the vast majority of such requests this year.
Neighbors of the proposed solar farm, most of whom are opposed to its location, have had to work quickly to voice their concerns. Sue Masear Anderson, whose property is right next to the acreage where the solar farm would be built, was caught by surprise on Aug. 31 when she and her neighbors received a letter from the LaSalle County Zoning Board arrived advising them of a Sept. 19 hearing on the matter. Feeling a sense of urgency, Anderson very quickly gathered as much information as possible about the process of permitting solar farms in LaSalle County.
In her research, she learned that the best outcome would be for the zoning board to “recess” the request, which they did at the Sept. 19 hearing.
A second hearing took place last week on Oct. 17 but the news was not good for Anderson and her neighbors. Rather than recessing the request for special use again, the petition was denied by the zoning board. “You would think that is good news - but now this petition goes to the LaSalle County Board on Nov. 1 for approval or denial,” Anderson explained, adding that most of the county board members do not consider the zoning board’s denial vote. “There is no ordinance on solar farms in place [in LaSalle County] and they have only denied two petitions in 2018.”
Rather, Anderson said the LaSalle County Board uses eight “guidelines” in making their decisions on solar farm petitions. Even without an ordinance in place, the county has approved, or has pending, dozens of petitions for solar farms. The rapid increase in petitions stems from the Future Energy Jobs Act, which took effect last year and requires Illinois utilities to get 25 percent of their retail power from renewable sources by 2025. With tax incentives and rebates available to companies that bring renewable energy to Illinois, a multitude of new projects have been proposed across the state.
Anderson explained that she is not against renewable energy but believes reasonable rules should be in place to protect the people living nearby. One of her concerns is possible storm damage to the solar panels, which actually happened in the 2015 tornado that hit Woodhaven Lakes. She said a solar farm that was located in the area was destroyed in the storm and three years later, the damaged solar panels are still laying where the wind blew them.
For now, she and the neighboring property owners are determined to keep fighting. Anderson said she was especially impressed by one of her neighbors, who at the age of 90 is very concerned about the issue and has attended all the meetings and hearings with her daughter. “I was so proud of her Wednesday night for being wide awake the whole time even though we were there until midnight,” Anderson commented following the Oct. 17 hearing.
In addition to attending meetings and hearings where local residents could voice the reasons for their opposition, the property owners have drawn up a list of their objections. They include:
* Too close to the City of Mendota and so many residents.
* NextEra-DG Illinois Solar, LLC has proven NOT to be a good neighbor to adjoining property owners, and the landowners over the past 90 days. (This is #4 on the LaSalle County Solar Farm Guidelines.)
* Chad Wixom and Mark Wixom, owners of the farm land, have expressed their desire to end their relationship with NextEra regarding Parcel #2 due to the strong opposition by neighbors and Mendota citizens.
* NextEra, in August 2018, received a cease and desist order by Oklahoma State Officials. The county should do a complete background check on this company.
* There is EVIDENCE of all residential property in this area seeing DECREASED property value because of the proximity of this proposed solar farm petition so close to the City of Mendota.
* Solar farm plants have their place over landfills, hazardous land, unproductive agricultural land, and should be 1,000 feet from residential property lines so as not to affect drainage and the decrease in property value.
* Solar farm plants do not belong near city limits, in a residential area, and where there is strong opposition by its citizens.
* Do not sacrifice our good farm fields for the next 20 to 30 years in return for a few megawatts of renewable energy.
Anderson said they will definitely attend the LaSalle County Board meeting on Nov. 1 but will not be allowed to speak. In the meantime, they are asking residents of LaSalle County to contact their county board members and ask them to vote no. JoAnn McNally of Mendota who represents District 2 on the county board, has consistently voted with the decision of the LaSalle County Zoning and Appeal Board, according the Anderson. “So, we have one NO vote so far – 28 to go,” Anderson said.
To bring more attention to the matter, several of the nearby neighbors also collaborated to install a sign near the site of the proposed solar farm (where North 4250th Road/East 6th Street curves into East 4th Road). Anderson said she bought the posts, another person donated the sign board, someone else created the design, and two others installed the completed sign. “We just want as many people from the area and the City of Mendota to call their county board members and say this is too close to the city and residential properties,” Anderson emphasized. “The zoning board heard the opposition and the evidence and asked questions of the developer and opposition but only a few of the county board members attended the zoning board meeting and heard the testimony.”
LaSalle County is not alone in facing this issue. Kankakee County has embraced the influx of solar farms and is said to be one of the first counties in the state to have an ordinance in place that gives developers rules and regulations for operating in that county. While Kankakee County is in favor of the solar farms, some of the county’s rural residents who would find the view from their windows change from agricultural to industrial are opposed. But for the landowners who do not live nearby, the added income from leasing to solar companies is undeniable. One Kankakee farm owner agreed to a 20-year lease for $800 per acre compared to the $250 per acre he gets when leasing to farmers who grow corn and soybeans.
With the move toward renewable energy gaining more traction in Illinois, a wave of new solar farms and other renewables seems inevitable and most would agree, a move in the right direction. LaSalle County residents can only hope the county board will keep their best interests in mind when making important decisions on the placement of solar farms and other renewable projects.
The petition is scheduled to go before the LaSalle County Board in Ottawa at 1 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 1. “We encourage people to attend the meeting to show the strength of the opposition,” Anderson said. “Please ask yourself if you would want a sea of blue solar panels in your backyard.”