Court sides with Champaign County wind developers in permit fight

The long-delayed plans to build a wind farm in Champaign County cleared another legal hurdle Wednesday after the Ohio Supreme Court unanimously sided with a state siting board in a dispute over changes to the first phase of the project.

The justices unanimously shot down arguments by Champaign County and three townships that the Ohio Power Siting Board should have conducted hearings on proposed changes to the wind farm’s permit. The court also said the county forfeited its argument because it was too late in filing its objections.

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Everpower introduced the Champaign County project as far back as 2008, arguing the wind farm could pour as much as $55 million into the local economy, although opponents have disputed that figure. It has been the subject of a long dispute between residents opposed to the project and the wind farm’s developers.

The Champaign County project calls for 100 turbines in two phases across several townships, producing enough energy to power as many as 50,000 homes annually. The court’s ruling was based on proposed changes to the first phase of the project, which would include about 54 turbines.

Champaign County leaders said Wednesday they were disappointed with the court’s decision, and argued the state failed to set some basic conditions in the first phase that have since become standard for other projects. For example, the county argued a road use agreement between the company and county should have been included in the first phase to protect public interest.

“Today’s ruling by the Supreme Court fails to rectify an inadequacy of the Buckeye I certificate,” said Jane Napier, assistant Champaign County prosecutor in a statement. “The commissioners and trustees were hopeful that the Supreme Court would instead choose to send this matter back to the Power Siting Board so that standard conditions, such as a road use maintenance agreement, could be implemented as part of the Buckeye I certificate.”

Officials from Everpower Wind Holdings, the company in charge of the project, said they were pleased with the court’s ruling.

“This is another positive step for the project, which will bring up to $900,000 to Champaign county annually, as well as new jobs and revenue to the local school districts,” said Jason Dagger, project manager for Everpower. “We will continue to work with the local community leaders to move the project forward.”

One legal challenge is still pending before the Ohio Supreme Court. State officials approved a request from Everpower to extend a deadline to construct the first phase of the project. But Union Neighbors United, a group of residents opposed to the project, have appealed that decision.

The project’s developers later sought several changes in the permit for the first phase, in part to make it easier to build both phases of the wind farm at the same time. Some of those changes included moving electrical lines underground, relocating access roads and re-sizing a staging area for construction.

The siting board approved the changes and county officials filed for a rehearing. The county appealed when a request for a rehearing was denied.

In its ruling, the Ohio Supreme Court argued county prosecutors should have raised their concerns earlier in the process.

“In accord, we hold that the county’s failure to take any action to challenge the scope of the hearing until after the hearing had already occurred and after the board had issued its order deprived the board of an opportunity to cure any alleged error at a time when it reasonably could have done so,” Justice Terrence O’Donnell wrote.

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