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    Eye On Illinois: Lawmakers covet counties' power to regulate solar, wind farm construction

    January 17, 2023 - Scott Holland


      Local control. Economic development. Are they compatible? The governor finds himself squarely in the middle. Again.

      Democrats passed House Bill 4412 in the last days of the 102nd General Assembly, but Gov. JB Pritzker hasn't yet signed it into law. Aside from the fact he's been busy with bigger proposals and an inauguration, there are political reasons at play.

      Chiefly, Pritzker is on record opposing HB 4412's main function: giving state regulators power over county government to restrict wind and solar farm construction. It negates old ordinances and gives counties 120 days to amend zoning rules to align with new provisions concerning setbacks, blade heights, sound limits and more.

      Democrats, like sponsor state Sen. Bill Cunningham, who represents Chicago and some southwestern suburbs, say restrictive regulations are jeopardizing alternative energy projects to the tune of 17,000 construction jobs and $8 billion in related economic impact.

      "There is an energy shortage in Illinois right now, and it is causing uncertainly, which causes prices to spike and potentially future brownouts," Cunningham said in a release last week. "This legislation will help solve that problem by expanding renewable energy opportunities."

      Other political challenges flow downstream, such as Pritzker's extensive track record strongly supporting clean energy initiatives and the reliable alignment of organized labor with Democrats, a second powerful constituency opposite the governor. That partnership worked in his favor when it came to getting key Republicans on board with shoring up Exelon Corp.'s nuclear fleet via $700 million in ratepayer subsidies, but it's a different power balance in this regard.

      "Sen. Cunningham's bill is exactly what Illinois needs to create more good-paying construction jobs," said Sean Stott, of Laborers' International Union. "Too often, wind and solar projects are being delayed for years, if not blocked permanently. This bill will bring more renewable projects online in Illinois and help create thousands of jobs in the process."

      Another issue is Pritzker has already signed off on General Assembly intervention in wind farm disputes between smaller governments. In 2019, with bipartisan support, lawmakers passed House Bill 2988, stipulating only counties – and not townships – can enact wind farm zoning regulations in otherwise unincorporated areas.

      The bill addressed a Douglas County dispute, per Capitol News Illinois. Newman and Murdock townships enacted regulations too strict for Houston-based EDP Renewables North America. The company sued, alleging the county's regulations should supersede. The legislature's action came over complaints of prioritizing financial growth over local control.

      Those same complaints echo in 2023, but this time lawmakers decided the power they granted counties over townships is really only tolerable when serving statewide priorities. The opposition of dozens of counties didn't align with the legislative power balance, leaving Pritzker the only backstop.

      Rural voters will be watching.

      Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media. Follow him on Twitter @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.


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