Lee is among the first counties in the state confronted with the question of how to regulate private power lines, a problem that first cropped up last year when Big Sky Wind secured building permits for 20 miles of new transmission lines from its soon-t -be-built project near Sublette to existing ComEd lines in Dixon.
The final path, which roughly follows State Route 26 through the center of Lee County, irritated a handful of homeowners in Amboy Township, some of whom fear the new power lines may have adverse effects on their health, property values and overall enjoy ent of the backyard view.
When it comes to regulating private transmission lines, Lee County ordinances give no clear direction to zoning or planning officials. Planning Commission Chairman and principal author of the county's zoning ordinances William O'Keefe said finding the appropriate regulations for the new transmission-line issue is a tough balancing act.
"I think we can put in what we want, but we have to be careful because we don't want to stop wind-farm development," O'Keefe said. Regardless of where residents come down on the value of pastoral aesthetic versus clean electricity, the County Board has taken a firm stance in favor of encouraging wind-farm development.
Geographically, southeastern Lee County is among the most attractive areas in the state for commercial wind-energy production, and several companies are competing for the prime space.
To date, Lee has more turbines than any other county in Illinois. The rush to build, however, has ushered in a host of regulatory issues, which often are solved on a case-by-case basis and can drag investors through a lengthy process of negotiations with the County Board, area land owners, and county officials and committees - all of whom can have vastly different ideas about the appropriate amount of development and regulation.
O'Keefe said his initial research has turned up surprisingly little precedent for regulation of private transmission line builders in other counties, which has made the process of drafting appropriate ordinances difficult.
For starters, O'Keefe said he is leaning toward recommending setbacks, a legal requirement that transmission lines remain a minimum distance from property lines and roads. Two-hundred feet is the figure O'Keefe is considering, but that is preliminary and needs more research before he can make a recommendation to the Planning Commission and the County Board. Complicating the issue is the difference between public utilities, like ComEd, and private utilities, like Big Sky and GSG Wind Energy.
Public transmission companies can use the courts to force counties and land owners to forfeit right of way through power of condemnation, if the company can demonstrate sufficient need.
That power is something private builders do not have, O'Keefe said. O'Keefe does not expect to provide any recommendations to the board this month, but it's something he knows the Planning Commission will have to work out soon because wind-farm builders are going to keep coming.