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Laws in 2 Midwest states make it hard for local governments to reject green projects


As the number of wind and solar farms grow in rural America, so has the level of organized opposition. Some counties and townships have placed restrictions on wind and solar farm construction. Two Midwestern states have laws in place that make it hard for local governments to say no to green projects. Jim Meadows from Harvest Public Media has more.

JIM MEADOWS: The farmland out where Jerry Edwards (ph) lives in central Illinois is flat enough that he can point to a spot a mile north where a wind farm will soon be installed.

JERRY EDWARDS: There will be a tower the size of the Gateway Arch.

MEADOWS: That famous structure in St. Louis rises more than 600 feet.

EDWARDS: And then in the field just east of it - I mean, we can walk out to the road and see - there will be a second.

MEADOWS: Members of the local county board reversed an earlier decision and voted to approve the wind farm after the passage of a new Illinois law. It blocks any outright ban of wind and solar projects. Edwards, the county board vice chairman, says his colleagues feared a costly legal battle.

EDWARDS: In a nutshell, the governor, the speaker of the House and the head of the Senate basically had a gun held to their head saying, you are going to vote for this, or else you subject the county to lawsuits that would break the county.

MEADOWS: Critics say the tall wind turbines are ugly and noisy, and that they and the solar panels could pose environmental hazards down the line. But the state of Illinois needs more wind farms and solar farms to meet its goal of 100% clean energy by 2050, says Sarah Fox. She's an expert on environmental law and land use at Northern Illinois University.

SARAH FOX: If you have local governments around the state unwilling to commit to wind and solar and other things, then Illinois is not going to be able to get to those renewable energy goals that it has set.

MEADOWS: Despite that concern, local opposition to wind and solar farms is on the rise. The Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University in New York keeps track. Matthew Eisenson, the author of the center's latest report, says more than 220 local governments and six states either restrict or ban them outright.

MATTHEW EISENSON: I think this is largely due to the fact that developers are proposing projects in new areas, and the local restrictions are often a reaction to, you know, a specific project proposal.

MEADOWS: In Michigan, a package of new renewable energy laws includes a provision giving the state final authority over large wind and solar projects. That was partly in response to wind farm opponents in central Michigan who voted to reject a proposed wind farm, and also to recall several township officials who supported it. Now those opponents are working to restore local control through a referendum. Retired Michigan schoolteacher Norm Stevens (ph) is gathering signatures.

NORM STEVENS: The state's plans of 100% renewable energy and takeover of local control of that zoning is a classic case of government overreach, and they aren't realistic and nor are they achievable.

MEADOWS: That type of political tussle is expected, says Jeff Danielson. He's with the Clean Grid Alliance, an advocate for renewable energy. He predicts acceptance of green projects will come.

JEFF DANIELSON: But it will come with some discussion, some conflict and a reconciling of folks' preferences along the way.

MEADOWS: And that's likely to take time, as more wind and solar farms are built across rural America.

For NPR News, I'm Jim Meadows in Urbana, Ill. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jim Meadows