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Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Court Upholds Zoning Approvals for Wind Farm Project

An Illinois Appellate Court recently ruled in favor of a county and developer in a zoning dispute brought by residents to challenge the approval of a wind energy farm project in the county. Erickson et al. v. Knox County Wind Farm LLC, et al.

A wind farm developer filed an application with the county for approval of a conditional use permit and a zoning variation to allow the construction and operation of a wind energy farm. The county ZBA approved the variation and recommended that the county board approve the conditional use permit. After the county board approved the conditional use permit, a group of residents filed a lawsuit against the county and the wind farm developer asking the court to overturn the county board's approval. Specifically, the residents claimed the approvals violated their procedural due process rights, the approvals were arbitrary and capricious under the LaSalle factor standards, the ZBA failed to issue findings of fact when the variation was approved, and the application did not meet the variation standards.

The trial court ruled in favor of the county and developer, and the residents appealed. On appeal, the Appellate Court upheld the rulings in favor of the county and developer.

First, the Appellate Court held that the residents had actual notice of the ZBA hearing and a meaningful opportunity to be heard at that hearing (and, in fact, participated in the hearing). The fact that notice came shortly before the hearing did not violate their procedural due process rights and the fact that the developer had more time to prepare for that hearing than the residents was not relevant to the residents' due process rights. The Court also rejected the residents' argument that the hearing should have been continued because their expert witnesses were not available on the hearing dates finding that they had time to provide additional witnesses, and that they did present evidence and cross-examined the developer's witnesses at those hearings. In short, the Court held that the residents were not denied due process.

Second, the Court rejected the residents' argument that the approvals were arbitrary and capricious under the LaSalle factors test, finding that the residents failed to specifically argue how each LaSalle factor applied to their case and that they were unable to overcome the presumption of validity of the county zoning approvals.

Third, the Court found that the ZBA did, in fact, issue findings of fact after it granted the variation and supplemented those findings after the lawsuit was filed. Since findings were properly made before the court considered the merits of the lawsuit, the Court found no prejudice to the residents.

Fourth, the Court rejected the residents' argument that the county was required to provide them with due process before it issued building permits for the wind farm, and also rejected their argument that the building officials had been unlawfully delegated authority to issue permits.

Finally, the Court upheld the ZBA's approval of the variation, finding sufficient evidence in the record that the application met the variation standards.


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