Grundy, Will county officials advocate for more local power over renewable projects

Solar panels cover a parcel of land near Illinois Route 71 and 1050 East Road on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024 near Granville.

State Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, introduced Senate Bill 2595 on Tuesday, which aims to restore control over the locations of renewable energy projects to counties.

That power was stripped by House Bill 4412, passed through on a vote of 73-36 and signed by Gov. JB Pritzker in January 2023 according to a document from the Illinois State Association of Counties.

“Counties are permitted to regulate the siting of commercial wind energy facilities with standards that are not more restrictive than the requirements specified within the law,” according to the document. “This includes unincorporated areas of the county that are outside of the zoning jurisdiction of the municipality and that are outside the 1.5-mile radius surrounding the zoning jurisdiction of the municipality.”

Under Rezin’s proposed bill, proposed commercial wind and solar energy facilities in an unincorporated area of a county that is within a 3-mile radius of a surrounding municipality can be denied siting approval if they do not obtain approval from both the County Board and the City Council of that municipality.

“The lame duck legislation that was pushed through the General Assembly stripped away the rights of local communities to have a say in the development of renewable energy projects within their vicinity,” Rezin said in a news release. “Senate Bill 2595 seeks to rectify that mistake by ensuring that both county and municipality officials can collectively determine what is best for their communities.”

State Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, speaks during a news conference Tuesday, April, 4, 2023,  in the Barsema Alumni and Visitors Center at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. Resin and other Illinois lawmakers, DeKalb city officials, representatives from NIU and Gov. JB Pritzker were on hand to promote the importance of funding higher education in Illinois.

According to the release, Rezin’s reason for filing the bill lies in ongoing community battles involving the passing of House Bill 4412 which includes communities within her district like Grundy County and Will County.

Will County Board Chair Judy Ogalla said her board had already created a robust set of ordinances that fit the community’s needs in 2016, and it’s been accepting and rejecting renewable energy projects at a rate similar to how it would handle any other type of project.

“We were working with information I learned from attending the Illinois Farm Bureau conference down in Springfield, and I attended a ‘farming with solar, wind and pipelines’ seminar and I was like, ‘wow, we need to add some more safeguards,’” Ogalla said. “Some of those safeguards were related to the field tiles. We have a lot of those in Illinois, and we wanted to make sure those weren’t impacted, which would cause flooding to other properties.”

Ogalla said the ordinance also had protections in case the solar farm was abandoned, leaving the county to pay for it getting decommissioned.

Ogalla said that House Bill 4412 meant that as long as a project had an Agriculture Impact Mitigation Agreement, the board has to hold a public hearing for a special use permit within 30 days. She said that’s unreasonable for a board that only meets once per month.

“Then they said if they have an AIMA signed with the state of Illinois, then we have to approve it,” Ogalla said. “They took our ability to say ‘we don’t think this location is appropriate,’ just like we do with any other special use permits.”

Grundy County Board Chairman Chris Balkema said he’s happy to see Rezin push Senate Bill 2595 since it will walk back some of what was in House Bill 4412. Balkema said it imposed an opinion of a few counties on the rest of the state regardless of unique attributes particular to the area.

Will County board member Judie Ogalla speaks at the Will County board meeting on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023 in Joliet.

Solar farms were a regular discussion topic at Grundy County Board meetings throughout most of 2023, with the county approving an extension for one project at its December meeting and rejecting extensions for two more. Residents spoke for hours against a Norman Township solar farm at a September Grundy County Board meeting, leading Board member Greg Ridenour to request the county create a comprehensive plan for handling solar farms.

“The issue tonight is a private landowner, a farmer has entered a lease agreement in good faith with a private company,” Ridenour said during the September meeting. “This isn’t a company coming in to confiscate his land. He, as the landowner, decided to enter into a negotiation with said company and they came to an agreement.”

The Norman Township solar farm was rejected on a split vote by the Grundy County Board after neighbors voiced their disapproval.

Balkema said many people have had farms in their families for generations and many others purchase farms with the idea that they’ll retire to them. Having a solar farm as a neighbor wasn’t something that fit those retirement plans.

Ogalla held a similar stance: She believes these facilities shouldn’t be built right up against residential-zoned properties.

“This bill would be an excellent start to modifications of legislation that took away powers from the county boards,” Ogalla said. “That’s the key thing: No other type of industry can get a special use permit by just having an AIMA file with the state.”

Senate Bill 2595 is waiting to be assigned to a Senate Committee for further consideration.

Michael Urbanec

Michael Urbanec

Michael Urbanec covers Grundy County and the City of Morris, Coal City, Minooka, and more for the Morris Herald-News