Power plant proposal generates ill will in suburban town

Chicago Tribune (IL), 2014-08-08

Aug. 08 --The village of Oakwood Hills hides on the edges of suburbia, away from major roads and huddled around tiny Silver Lake , an enclave of about 2,000 people.

There are no sidewalks, stores, churches or factories -- just houses, some of them vacation cottages from the 1950s and '60s. The village hall is surrounded by cornfields. The local motto is "where the waters run clear and the air is fresh."

So when village leaders signed an agreement this spring to build a 430-megawatt power plant in town, residents were surprised and upset, to say the least.

More than 800 people turned out at a meeting to discuss the plan, and shouted at developers with cries of, "We don't want your plant," and "We don't need your money."

When public comments were cut off, residents rushed forward to object. Village leaders say threats were made against officials and to block the conduct of public business. The Village Board canceled its next meeting, closed Village Hall indefinitely to public business and referred the matter to police.

The controversy takes to a new level the frequent "not in my backyard" battles of the suburbs, those involved say. It pits the long-sought development of cleaner, more efficient energy sources against homeowners using targeted networking and social media to attack the plan and prevent any similar unwelcome surprises.

'Out of hand'

The eruption of rage over the plan surprised local officials, who all work part time and are in some cases relatively new to politics.

"The protesters have gotten out of hand," Village President Melanie Funk said. "I'm taken aback by the viciousness and personal attacks and how cruel people can be."

Those leading the opposition expressed skepticism, saying they never heard any threats, and suspect the closing of Village Hall is a smoke screen to deny them information about the plan.

"It's been very underhanded," homeowner Joe Ricciardi said. "People are very upset. The public was caught by surprise."

As out of place as opponents contend the power plant would be in Oakwood Hills , a McHenry County town about 50 miles northwest of Chicago , project manager Conrad Anderson thought he'd found a virtually ideal location when he spotted the property several years ago.

The land is next to a ComEd substation, with transmission lines in every direction. It has access to a 36-inch gas pipeline a mile away. There is an industrial plant on one side, Village Hall on the other, farm fields all around and most homes at least a half mile away.

Anderson's employer, Enventure Partners , eventually worked up a proposal with Canadian builder and operator Northland Power for a $450 million natural gas-fired power plant that would generate enough electricity to supply 160,000 homes.

It would be a combined cycle plant, meaning that the gas would be burned to power a jet engine-like turbine, and the hot exhaust would also power a steam plant, resulting in much more efficient energy production.

The plant would also fit into the current industry trend to replace aging nuclear and coal plants, Anderson said, because it's much cleaner, it can complement growing wind and solar power and can ramp up and down quickly to meet demand.

For that reason, it would likely run mostly during daylight hours on weekdays, when demand is greatest.

A similar, though much larger, plant has been in operation without controversy for years in Minooka , near Joliet , Anderson said, and new plants are being built in urban areas and on college campuses, such as the University of Wisconsin at Madison .

The plant would have to meet all village and state requirements to limit noise and pollution to safe levels, he said, and has a contemporary design he compared to a modern train station.

"I would love to live next to this plant," he said, adding with a laugh, "but I'm an engineer."

Any power plant generates opposition, Anderson said, but he never ran into such fierce outrage as in Oakwood Hills .

'Not the right place'

Down the street from the proposed site, in an unincorporated neighborhood of newer houses, Ricciardi expressed the same concerns as many of his neighbors.

He worried about the safety of the carbon dioxide emissions, noise, ice on the roads from the steam exhaust in the winter and the effect on property values and groundwater.

A study by McHenry County projected that groundwater in the area will become scarce in coming years even without the power plant, which is expected to use more than 1 million gallons of water a day.

Developers say two wastewater treatment plants in neighboring Cary and Crystal Lake could supply enough water to run the plant, but it would still require a well to reach a deep aquifer for backup capacity.

Opponents remain skeptical, also pointing to a grade school about a 1,000 feet from the proposed site, and the fact that the plant's exhaust stack would be 185 feet tall.

"Yes, we need green power," Ricciardi said. "But this is not the right place."

Residents were blindsided by the proposal, he said, when the Village Board unanimously approved a "hosting" agreement that calls for plant operators to pay the village $1.3 million , plus $150,000 in annual ongoing payments and an estimated $750,000 in yearly property taxes, most of it to schools.

But Prairie Grove School District 46 opposes the plant. Superintendent Phil Bender said officials were "gravely concerned" about the health and safety of the 800 children there, saying the plant would be "completely contradictory to the ethics of this community."

State Rep. David McSweeney and state Sen. Dan Duffy have also come out against the proposal, and McSweeney questioned the lack of openness in its development.

No mention of plant

Village President Funk said the developers approached her with the idea shortly after she took office in spring last year. She said the village negotiated the agreement with the protection of the community in mind.

If the plant were ever to close, for instance, she said, the operators would be required to dismantle it to the ground and restore the property, which is now a bean field.

Last October, the Tribune asked Funk about a proposal to build a "peaker plant," a power plant designed to operate at times of peak power usage. In an email response, Funk wrote, "There are NO plans for a peaker plant in Oakwood Hills ."

She did not mention the pending proposal for a power plant, she said Thursday, because it was in preliminary negotiations that were not open to the public.

After delaying consideration of the power plant amid the public outcry, Oakwood Hills' zoning board now plans to wait until October to take up matter again publicly, giving the village, developers and opponents more time to research and respond to concerns. The plant's fate would ultimately be decided by the Village Board .

If approved, it's scheduled to be operational in 2018.

In the meantime, hard feelings are stewing. Drivers roll down their windows and shout names at Funk outside her home, she said. That's in sharp contrast to the apathy in times past, Funk noted, when no residents attended village meetings, and she couldn't find people to serve on village committees.

"Large towns deal with these issues all the time, but this is the first time here since I've been in office," she said. "I hope things will calm down a little bit."


Twitter @RobertMcCoppin


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