Quaint McHenry County town rocked by power plant proposal
In the 25 years Laura Gaspardo has lived in Oakwood Hills, she can remember only one issue -- the potential removal of septic tanks -- that riled up residents.
The idyllic McHenry County town of roughly 2,000 people north of Cary and east of Crystal Lake has become a hotbed of controversy with residents protesting a proposed 430-megawatt natural gas-fired power plant. But the ill will reached unprecedented proportions, prompting a shutdown of local government with no reopening date in sight.
Threats made at a July 31 zoning board hearing led officials to close village hall until things cool down. Thursday night's village board meeting was canceled, too. The zoning board hearing has been continued to Oct. 9.
More than 800 irked village residents and those from surrounding communities packed two recent zoning board meetings at the Crystal Lake Holiday Inn. Things got so heated, with yelling and obscenities, that village trustees and employees had to be escorted out for their safety, police said.
But Gaspardo says "people are angry" because they learned about the power plant proposal only weeks before the zoning board hearing. Many residents didn't get to speak.
"It's not just about this power plant going in. It's also about the secrecy that shrouded this whole thing," Gaspardo said.
The proposed $500 million Oakwood Hills Energy Center is a joint development venture between Northland Power, a Canadian company, and Enventure Partners. The developer suggests it is a cheaper and cleaner way of producing energy than coal and nuclear plants, and would supply electricity to 160,000 households.
The facility is targeted for roughly 13 acres behind village hall near a ComEd substation and high-tension power lines -- less than a half-mile from Prairie Grove Elementary School and residential areas. Aside from that one industrial area, the village is entirely residential.
Oakwood Hills Village President Melanie Funk said she first heard about the power plant idea last summer, but the developer didn't submit a proposal until a few months ago.
In May, the village board approved a "hosting agreement" laying out the ground rules the developer must abide by, such as spelling out what happens if the power plant goes under and ensuring the development meets Environmental Protection Agency standards and the requirements of village ordinances.
"If you don't lay those things out before it goes to the zoning committee, you are not protected," said Funk, adding that hosting agreements are not uncommon and communities have used it for a variety of large projects. "It will give any village control over the aspects of the development."
Funk said this latest proposal is not the same as a peaker plant that had been talked about in 2009 by the same developer. Those plans were never presented to the village. The newest version, she added, is by no means a done deal.
"We're gathering information, too. We need to hear what they have to say," Funk said. "We're like never on the map, and then all of a sudden a proposal like this comes. ... As trustees we are obligated to hear it, just like someone who wants to build a home. Legally, it is the same process. This is just a lot larger and a lot more complex."
Funk said the developer picked Oakwood Hills for the plant because the site is next to a natural gas pipeline and existing infrastructure and power lines.
Plans include a 107-foot-tall building and 185-foot-tall smoke stack -- among the most controversial elements -- for which the developer is seeking a height variance from the village, said Joab Ortiz, project liaison.
The facility uses gas to fuel turbines and energy from steam produced when water is used to cool down the plant. "It's much more efficient than a peaker facility," Ortiz said.
It's unclear whether the facility would use ground water or "gray water" -- essentially treated sewage -- to cool the plant.
"This is going to be put basically right in the middle of a neighborhood," said Chris Reining, who lives about a half mile southeast of the proposed plant. "There's no doubt that this is going to make a large amount of noise. Emissions from it, they say, are going to be minimal, but there's still going to be emissions. You don't know what the effects are 15, 20 years down the line. It's just not the right fit. If there is a need for power plants, then they should be built in a rural area."
Funk said residents will be able to voice their concerns when the zoning board hearing resumes 6:30 p.m. Oct. 9. at the Holiday Inn, 800 S. Route 31, Crystal Lake.
"We're going to definitely have to beef up security," Funk said. The village has an intergovernmental agreement with Cary and Crystal Lake police departments to assist in such situations.
Officials said they are monitoring the situation and hope to reopen village hall soon. Meanwhile, residents can leave voice messages for village employees and trustees and contact the police department in an emergency.
"Our safety comes first. We live here. Our families are here. People have to work there," Funk said. "You have to take these things seriously, especially in this day and age."