Environmentalists and wind-farm supporters are usually on the same side in development battles, but a proposed project near Valmeyer has turned that alliance on its head.
A developer wants to place up to 50 wind turbines along a 15-mile stretch of blufftop property, generating “clean” alternative energy and raising much-needed tax revenue for local schools and other government services.
Opponents argue that the 600-foot-tall, 2,400-ton turbines would diminish the area’s natural beauty and harm sensitive geologic features that provide habitat to 16 endangered species, including bats and crustaceans that live in caves and underground streams.
“Don’t get me wrong, we are all for alternative energy,” said Joann Fricke, 64, a retired U.S. Department of Agriculture employee who lives next to the proposed project along Illinois 156 with her husband, Mike. “But this is just not the right place for a wind farm.”
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Similar views have been expressed by local environmental organizations, such as Heartlands Conservancy and CLIFFTOP (Conserving, Lands in Farm, Forest, Talus or Prairie).
The wind turbines would be the tallest in Illinois, according to state and industry officials — about the same height as the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.
The developer is Joe Koppeis, owner of Southern Illinois Wind. The Columbia businessman expects the project to cost $220 million. He hasn’t yet applied for a special-use permit from the Monroe County Board of Commissioners, but he hopes to in the coming months.
Koppeis is asking for patience from the public while his engineers and other technical staff conduct “feasibility studies,” addressing environmental concerns and determining suitable locations for turbines. He predicts support for the wind farm will grow when all the facts come out.
“Right now, I think people are making assumptions that the data is not backing up,” he said.
One of the wind farm’s early supporters is Laborer’s Local 196 in Monroe County. Union leaders estimate that construction on turbine foundations and roads would create 45,000 “man-hours” of work for laborers and more for electricians, ironworkers and other tradesmen.
“Our members live and work in the county,” said Business Manager Greg Kipping, 48, of Waterloo. “They pay taxes. They buy homes. They go to restaurants. They spend their money here, so it would help the community as a whole.”
Opposition spread on Facebook
Koppeis, 64, also owns restaurants, hotels, hardware stores, shopping centers, supermarkets and other businesses in Southern Illinois. He recently opened 11 South, a five-story medical and office complex in Columbia.
For more than 10 years, Koppeis has been exploring the idea of leasing farmland on the Mississippi River bluffs and developing a wind farm that could connect to nearby transmission lines and send electricity to area power plants. But it wasn’t until recently that awareness became widespread and opposition became vocal.
This summer, a Facebook group formed under the name “Save the Bluffs — Say NO to Joe.” It now has about 600 followers. On Aug. 20, more than 100 people attended a Monroe County Board of Commissioners meeting in Waterloo to hear Koppeis explain his concept.
“It was a packed house that day,” said Mike Fausz, zoning administrator. “I’d say the majority were against, but it was just an informational meeting. I’m not sure how many people knew about it.”
Opponents got a boost in October, when the Illinois Department of Natural Resources published a report, known as an Ecological Compliance Assessment Tool (EcoCAT), examining how natural areas and endangered species could be affected by the proposed wind farm.
The agency made 19 recommendations. The first was for the developer to consider an alternate location.
The tree- and prairie-lined bluffs in Monroe County are largely made of karst, which is eroded limestone that includes caves, underground streams, fissures and sinkholes, according to Keith Shank, an IDNR manager in realty and capital planning, who led the EcoCAT study.
“Wind turbines weigh thousands of pounds, and they need huge concrete foundations that go down 12 to 20 feet,” he said. “That’s a lot of weight that’s not on the ground now, and the thing with karst, you never know whether there’s a void under your feet. So it’s a challenge to build anything in this part of the county.”
Beyond ecology, some local residents are concerned that a wind farm would change the character of the rural landscape, giving it an industrial look and feel. Others worry about property values.
“Just how hard do you think it will be to sell your nice home with a view of these eyesores?” an administrator for the “Say NO to Joe” Facebook page posted next to a photo of wind turbines towering over a barn. “Would you purchase a house with this view?”
Project could help schools
Koppeis first envisioned wind energy as a way to reduce electricity costs for his most unusual business — Rock City, a 6-million-square-foot underground warehouse and refrigeration facility in an abandoned limestone mine in Valmeyer. Tenants range from Little Caesars to the National Archives.
The state prepared its first EcoCAT for a wind farm on the Monroe County bluffs in 2012, reaching conclusions similar to those in this fall’s report. The project got put on hold, but the County Board developed a wind-farm ordinance, anticipating future requests.
Koppeis said he resurrected the plan this year because he hopes to persuade a tech giant such as Google, Facebook or Amazon to establish a data center at Rock City, and many of those companies are committed to renewable energy.
“In addition to that, Valmeyer School District needs tax revenue,” Koppeis said. “They’ve always struggled, and the wind turbines would pay real estate taxes in the amount of about $40,000 a year per turbine.”
Koppeis would like to start construction on the wind farm in two to three years. Lorrie Maag, director of operations for his flagship company, Admiral Parkway, said they haven’t researched or applied for any grants or government assistance.
Wind-farm technology has made big advancements in recent years, allowing smaller numbers of large turbines, placed further apart, to generate as much or more electricity than larger numbers of small turbines.
Koppeis is working with Senvion, a German manufacturer that has sold 1,258 turbines for wind farms in North America. Those in Monroe County would have 4.2-megawatt capacity, generating enough electricity to power 3,600 homes, according to Scott Foster, senior director of North American sales, based in Denver.
“In northern Illinois, there’s more wind,” he said. “In Southern Illinois, there’s less wind. So you want a rotor with a bigger diameter, and in addition to that, you want a taller (tower). That allows you to capture more wind.”
Foster said each of the Monroe County turbines would weigh 2,170 metric tons, which is 4,784,031 pounds or 2,392 tons. That includes a steel tower, a 485-foot-diameter rotor with glass-fiber blades and a foundation made of concrete and rebar.
Foster said he isn’t surprised that the project has opposition because all developers face the “not-in-my-backyard issue.”
“The reason why I’m in this industry is that I have two children, and I firmly believe renewable energy is the way to go,” he said. “Every wind turbine that’s installed reduces the need for the burning of fossil fuels.”
Rare species live in caves
The bluffs between Valmeyer and Fults contain nearly 20 protected sites, including Illinois Caverns State Natural Area and Fults Hill Prairie Nature Preserve. The EcoCAT looked at 15,000 acres that could make up the wind farm’s “footprint,” as well as surrounding areas.
The report acknowledges that turbines have been placed over karst in other states, but it says those developers took stabilizing actions, such as filling underground voids with grout, which would be unacceptable in this case because of the area’s nature preserves and 16 endangered species, some legally protected under both state and federal law.
“The cave ecosystems of Southwestern Illinois ... provide essential habitat for more than 200 species of animals, partly or exclusively adapted to subterranean conditions,” the report states. “All are relatively rare, if not unique to Illinois, and several are listed as endangered or threatened.”
The most notable species is the Illinois cave amphipod, a half-inch-long, shrimp-like crustacean that lives in pitch-dark underground streams within a 10-mile radius of Waterloo and nowhere else in the world.
Other cave dwellers in the vicinity include the endangered gray bat and Indiana bat and threatened northern long-eared bat.
All the endangered species could be negatively affected by turbine noise and vibration, test drilling, soil erosion and other changes to the configurations of caves or sinkholes, according to the report, which also addressed the effect of a wind farm on plants and animals above ground.
“(The project) has a lot of challenges,” Shank said. “If there were no animals there at all, it would still have geology challenges. But in this case, you have endangered species living in that geology.”
Koppeis disagrees with some of IDNR’s conclusions, but he declined to get specific until his team of experts have completed their own studies.
“We’re addressing all of the environmental concerns in the report to see if they can be remedied or not,” he said, adding that he only wants to move forward on the project if it makes sense.
Bluff protectors are opposed
EcoCATs don’t consider impacts related to economics, traffic or property values, and they’re only advisory under Illinois law. That means local governments must consider IDNR recommendations, but they don’t have to follow them. Developments can still get special-use permits.
“Theoretically, they can start work, but if they violate the federal or state endangered species acts, the attorney general can seek an injunction,” Shank said.
EcoCATS serve another purpose. They inform the public, including organizations such as CLIFFTOP, a volunteer group that works to protect the bluffs of Monroe, Randolph and St. Clair counties.
This fall, its board voted to oppose what it called an “industrial wind factory” between Valmeyer and Fults.
“While CLIFFTOP supports the use of renewable fuel sources such as wind and solar, we feel that the location of the industrial-sized turbines has the potential to do serious damage to the bluff lands and karst terrain,” according to a statement.
A similar position was adopted by Heartlands Conservancy, a Belleville-based non-profit conservation organization that serves Southwestern Illinois.
Heartlands has worked extensively in Monroe County, helping to preserve sites such as Kidd Lake Marsh State Natural Area near Fults. It recently sent a letter to the Monroe County board, opposing the wind farm.
“The Mississippi River serves as sort of a superhighway for migratory birds flying south from the Great Lakes each winter,” said Mary Vandervort, president and CEO. “Bald eagles nest at Kidd Marsh Lake — which is within a mile of the proposed wind farm —and bald eagles are susceptible to collisions with wind turbines, as are other birds.”
One commenter on the “Say NO to Joe” Facebook page speculated that the wind farm would face more opposition if it were closer to Columbia, and he called on all Monroe County residents to “stand up” against it.
“This is a decision that will change Monroe (County) till the end of time,” another man wrote.
Couple concerned about future
Retirees Joann and Mike Fricke didn’t expect to be spokesmen for an anti-wind-farm campaign in Monroe County, but when other opponents shied away from the spotlight, they felt a responsibility.
The Frickes bought their two-story, log-sided home on the bluff above Valmeyer 11 years ago, falling in love with its expansive views and wild visitors, including bobcats and hawks. But they quickly concluded the property shouldn’t have been developed.
The couple designated 114 of their 120 acres as an Illinois nature preserve and land and water reserve, prohibiting further development, even after they die. Joann Fricke also became membership chair of CLIFFTOP.
“It really opened my eyes to the diversity of the plants and animals in this area, how important they are and how destructive this wind farm would be on their habitat,” she said.
The Frickes became alarmed in August, when they saw a map distributed at the Monroe County board meeting that showed a possible wind-farm border 2,000 feet from their property. Today, a sign reading “No turbines in bluff corridor” is posted at the bottom of their steep driveway.
That driveway often comes up in wind-farm discussions. Two years ago, sinking ground caused a 200-foot-section of pavement to suddenly break off and drop 4 feet.
“This is an unstable area,” said Mike Fricke, 65, who’s retired from a company that rented barricades and other road-construction equipment. “You never know what’s going to happen.”
The couple also are concerned about how noise, vibrations and “shadow flickers” from giant turbine rotors can affect human health.
“(The wind farm is) not an environmentally friendly project because you’re putting the wildlife in danger,” Mike Fricke said. “You can say that you’re creating green energy, but at what cost? This is a very sensitive area.”
Wind farm is hot topic in Valmeyer
The village of Valmeyer has an interest in Rock City because it owns the abandoned mine. In 15 years, it has collected more than $2 million in rent, which is based on how much of the facility is occupied.
Mayor Howard Heavner said the wind farm has been a hot topic around town in recent months — particularly among farmers who seem “split” on the issue. He thinks some residents are hiding their true opinions to avoid political fights with neighbors.
The village hasn’t taken a position on the project, partly because officials haven’t seen a map or received much information about it.
“Physically, it doesn’t affect us,” said Heavner, 58, an part-time agriculture professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. “It’s not going to be on our properties. I worked at the high school for 33 years, and it would provide some tax revenue. But how much is a question mark for me.”
The wind farm would be divided between Valmeyer and Waterloo school districts, according to Kelton Davis, regional superintendent of schools for Monroe and Randolph counties.
Any large commercial or industrial development, such as a wind farm, would have a “tremendous financial benefit” for local schools, he said. It would raise assessed property valuations — and therefore tax revenues — without requiring districts to serve more students.
“This is just something we all need to know more about, and the impact it will have on our county, good or bad,” Davis said. “It’s a discussion we need to have before we weigh in with our opinions. It’s not all about money.”
Koppeis would need to submit a variety of reports, including the EcoCAT, with its application for a special-use permit to the Monroe County board, according to Fausz.
That would kick off a review process that could take months. Perhaps most important, officials must determine whether wind-farm specifications adhere to the county’s ordinance.
“It’s going to take quite a while for the county to go in and decipher what’s going on here,” Fausz said. “It’s not like they’re building a nursery. This is a huge project.”