Ted Hartke testifies before the Ford County Planning Commission in September. Hartke says he was forced to leave his home because of nearby wind turbines and has become a vocal and prominent activist against wind energy. Credit: Will Brumleve / Ford County Record, used with permission

In Ford County, Illinois, what would otherwise be a routine election for county board has drawn outside interest from activists both opposed to, and in favor of, wind energy

“I don’t think anyone here would want a creepy neighbor sliding their hands under your daughter’s sheets.”

That was one of several metaphors for wind turbines that Ted Hartke used in telling a Ford County, Illinois zoning board how a wind farm had forced his family to leave their home in a neighboring county five years ago.

Hartke also compared wind energy to the tobacco industry and framed his opposition as a populist, social justice issue. He has made similar points at wind-related hearings around the Midwest, offering folksy anecdotes about his family and charts and maps about noise levels and property values.

His hour-long sworn testimony in Ford County was part of a three-hour-plus hearing Oct. 25 that showcased how a battle over wind turbine setbacks has become a referendum of sorts on wind energy in Illinois, drawing opponents like Hartke who appear to be part of a national network active on social media, and turning an otherwise obscure Nov. 6 county board election into a high-stakes battle.

Ford County, about 90 minutes south of Chicago by car, has had a moratorium on new wind development since last fall, after opposition was raised to existing regulations calling for 1,000-foot setbacks from any primary building. The county board’s zoning committee held meetings seeking input and recommended setbacks of 2,250 feet from buildings. Now the zoning board of appeals is considering revisions to the regulations, and their recommendations will be passed on to the full county board, which can make further revisions.

The group Ford County Citizens for Property Rights is calling for 3,250-foot setbacks from any property lines. At the recent hearing, where about 100 people packed into the quaint Paxton court house until after 10 p.m., many wore fluorescent yellow T-shirts proclaiming “We (heart) wind” but demanding the longer setbacks.

Wind backers have said the proposal would effectively stop wind development in the county, where Orion Renewable Energy GroupPattern Energy and Apex Clean Energy have proposed new wind farms. Apex is seeking to build a 125 MW wind farm called Ford Ridge.

There are four open seats on the 12-member county board that will be decided in the upcoming election. Cindy Ihrke and her mother-in-law, Ann Ihrke, decided to run for two of those seats as Republicans, because of their concerns about wind development.

Nurse Lori Reinert and county assessor Marcia Peznowski are running against them as Democrats, saying they support wind power and want to offer voters “another choice,” as Peznowski put it, in a heavily Republican county.

Running unopposed for another seat on the board is Debbie Smith, a former county board member and part-time employee at the hunting club Cindy Ihrke owns with her husband.

Multiple residents at the Oct. 25 hearing said they were upset about recently receiving two glossy fliers from the address of Columbus, Ohio political consultant and attorney Jeffery Ruppert, attacking the Ihrkes for their positions on wind energy. The mailers portray a hand manipulating marionette strings, and the words “We can’t let these two have their way.” The fliers do not say who funded or approved the message.

Peznowski and Reinert said they know nothing about the fliers, and see them as one more sign that their small county has become a battleground for larger forces.

“I’m just concerned about the direction our country is going in so many ways, and even at the microcosm of the county level,” said Reinert. “It seems like there is a lot of money [and] influence coming in from outside the county.”

The state board of elections does not list campaign donations for any of the board candidates, and the Ford County clerk’s office said there is no record of campaign donations in the race — which is typically the case “since we are such a small county.”

Wind-swept farmland

For years wind energy has sparked both enthusiasm and concern in central Illinois, with some saying it harms their property values and quality of life and others lauding the infusion of tax dollars and lease payments into struggling farm economies.

Illinois currently ranks sixth in installed wind capacity nationwide, and the Future Energy Jobs Act passed in 2016 calls for increasing the state’s renewable energy to 25 percent by 2025.  There are currently more than 300 turbines in Ford and two neighboring counties – Vermilion and Champaign. In 2016 and 2017 the three counties saw $9.9 million in property tax revenue from the turbines, according to an analysis by the local News-Gazette, with school districts, fire districts and community colleges benefitting.

The Twin Groves wind farm just west of Ford County is visible in this photo, shot from the town of Holder.

In response, the county board instituted the moratorium and began seeking comments and information in order to revise regulations, explained board zoning committee chairman Dave Hastings, who is also a corn and soybean farmer.

“We are trying to be as fair as possible to both sides,” Hastings said. “We started out telling everyone if we did our job everyone would be upset, and that would be a good compromise. Everyone seems to be upset so it seems to have worked.”

He said that he understands why people don’t want turbines “in their backyard,” but he supports wind as a form of clean energy — and revenue for the county.

“My personal opinion is that Ford County is a small county and we aren’t blessed with a number of businesses that are wanting to move in, so we need the tax revenue and the revenue in general” from wind development.

A man on a mission

After the zoning board adjourned the recent hearing, residents yelled out and muttered in anger and frustration – because sworn testimony by those registered in advance took so long that the open public comment period was delayed until November 1 at 1 p.m., when many said they would be at work. Many had also sat through an October 3 hearing that lasted about four hours, in hopes of making comments.

Hartke, a land surveyor, does not live in Ford County and told the Energy News Network the proposed new wind farms would not affect him personally. But after his experience with an Invenergy wind farm in Vermilion County, he’s made it a personal crusade to oppose wind farms across the state and beyond.

“It comes down to I’m really pissed off because they ruined my house and cost me a lot of money,” Hartke told the Energy News Network. “I’m making them pay for it one wind farm at a time.” Hartke thinks he has influenced the outcome of votes, including in Livingston County where the board voted down an Invenergy proposed wind farm in 2015.

Hartke has testified at hearings in Indiana, Tennessee and Michigan and in Illinois counties including Livingston (where he spoke for about three hours), McLean, Morgan, Boone, Iroquois, Bureau, Vermilion and Logan, according to county minutes, news coverage and Hartke’s own list. He’s also testified against a proposed solar farm in Champaign County, Illinois, where he now lives. And he’s spoken out in blogs and op-eds, on social media and in comments on local news stories regarding wind regulations or proposals in other Illinois counties and other states.

In November 2016, Hartke testified at a hearing in Warren County, Indiana where he used the same metaphor invoked in Ford County – likening a wind farm to “allowing a pedophile into your child’s bedroom.” In a Facebook post about his trip to testify against Apex Clean Energy’s proposed Crab Orchard wind farm, he wrote, “I hope Theodore Roosevelt would have approved what Theodore Hartke is trying to do.”

Hartke grew up on a hog farm in tiny Teutopolis, Illinois, and is passionately dedicated to preserving farming life and culture, as he describes it. He says he previously supported wind energy, and initially had no reservations when Invenergy started its California Ridge wind farm near his home in Vermilion County.

But once the Invenergy turbines were operating in early 2013, as Hartke describes it, their family life became a nightmare. At the Ford County hearing he showed photos and maps of their spacious former home with four wind turbines located within 3,500 feet, the nearest one 1,665 feet away. He described sleepless nights and contacting the company more than 50 times in the wee hours complaining about the noise from turbines.

Hartke said he hired an expert to do a noise study in his home. He has not released those results to county boards where he has testified or to Invenergy.

Over Christmas 2013 Hartke’s family moved into a double-wide trailer and later into another house. He refers to his family as “refugees” forced to “abandon” their home. He said they sold the home near the Invenergy wind farm to an elderly neighbor in 2016, three years after leaving; the house most recently sold in April for $262,000 after being listed for nearly a year at a higher price.

In 2011 Hartke started his own surveying and engineering firm, and about two years ago he bought a surveying firm in Paxton in Ford County. He told the Energy News Network he wants to expand his work into the area, but worries wind farms will hurt his business because wind developers will survey the land so thoroughly that little work will be left.

Some question whether Hartke is being paid by or is otherwise involved with national groups with ties to the fossil fuel industry. At a hearing in McLean County, resident Andy Byars raised that question, calling Hartke a “carpet-bagging wind opponent” using “fear-mongering tactics” to spark local opposition to wind energy.

Hartke told the Energy News Network that he has never been compensated for his activism, except for receiving a basket of locally-grown fruit and honey in Tennessee, a convenience store gift card that he donated to his church, and one hotel room paid for by a citizens group.

“In the Bible it says if people ask you to help them, and you can, then you should,” Hartke said. “I’m Catholic, Catholics believe you have to work your way to heaven by doing good deeds and being good on earth. I hope that my work to help communities avoid problems [with wind turbines] will maybe pay off for me.”

A larger network?

When Cindy Ihrke and her mother-in-law, Ann Ihrke, were told about vacancies opening up on the Ford County board, Cindy Ihrke said, they decided to run because of their opposition to wind energy.

Cindy Ihrke and her husband own and run a hunting club where customers from around the world pay to hunt pheasant, duck and partridge on wooded land, and the Ihrkes train hunting dogs for them.

Ann Ihrke at a recent Ford County planning commission meeting. (Kari Lydersen / Energy News Network)

The wind developments proposed in Ford County would not affect the Ihrkes’ business, Cindy said, but she fears other wind developments could. She worries that wind farms would spoil the bucolic feeling that attracts clients, and that hunters or their dogs could be hit by ice sloughing off turbine blades or blades falling off turbines. (Falling turbine blades was a fear cited multiple times at the Ford County hearing; industry experts say such events are extremely rare).

Cindy Ihrke became concerned about wind energy about a decade ago, and in 2010 formed a now-defunct group called Energize Illinois to educate people about different energy options, she said.

“When wind energy first came to this area we all thought it was a really cool thing,” said Ihrke. “Once people have experienced living amongst them, we realized that these things don’t belong close to homes, where people are trying to live and sleep and run their lives. They just don’t. It’s fine when there’s no people around, like out in Texas. But here in the Midwest, they just have to realize that there are people and you gotta work together.”

In 2012 Ihrke attended a training in Washington D.C. called the D.C. Energy Advocates Conference that brought together major conservative groups and local wind energy critics from around the country to strategize about shaping local and state policy.

A 2012 investigation by The Guardian described the training and cited a confidential memo outlining plans to develop propaganda and a “counter-intelligence branch” targeting the wind industry. The Guardian reported the conference was organized by John Droz, a political operative and scientist with a history of denying climate change. Ihrke said that since the conference was focused on national issues and she sees wind energy as a local debate, she has not been involved with that movement since.

Emails obtained by clean energy advocates through a public records request show that in February, Ihrke emailed Droz seeking a model ordinance aimed at opposing solar farm development. She passed on a model ordinance he provided to the Ford County board. Clean energy advocates say that Hartke’s and Ihrke’s focus on solar as well as wind energy indicates they are part of a larger movement to oppose clean energy, rather than simply motivated by bad experiences with wind turbines.

Cindy Ihrke holds mailers attacking her campaign. (Kari Lydersen / Energy News Network)

Apex Energy vice president of public affairs Dahvi Wilson listed Cindy Ihrke and Ted Hartke among “a particular group of about five to 10 individuals who appear to have made it their profession to travel to communities across broad regions to recruit, activate, and train local renewables opponents.”

Wilson also listed Kevon Martis, who testified at an early October hearing before the zoning board in Ford County and also joined Hartke in testifying in October in Morgan County, where local news coverage referred to them as “visiting experts.” Martis is the founder of the Interstate Informed Citizen’s Coalition, highlighting wind proposals and opposition. Residents where he has testified have also raised questions about his funding and motivation.

As Wilson sees it, the scenario unfolding in Ford County is part of a standard playbook.

“Anti-wind activists have identified a handful of tactics for delaying or blocking renewable energy project development, and they employ these techniques across the country. These tactics include pressuring local governments to amend ordinances in a manner that creates untenable and scientifically unjustified siting requirements, demanding frivolous renewable energy moratoria, recalling wind-friendly local officials, forcing ballot initiatives through citizen petitions, and taking legal action against counties and companies.

“Increasingly, opponents have turned to the use of the Internet and social media to communicate with each other, organize, and share lessons learned about how to effectively prevent renewable energy projects from being built. In some cases, they have gone to communities that had no known opposition to a proposed project and instigated a sense of fear and outrage. We have seen these types of attacks delay projects, create new cost burdens for both projects and local counties, and, on occasion, force project developers to abandon them entirely.”

Hartke said he does see himself as part of a larger network, but not one involving fossil fuel interests or national organizations like the Heartland Institute, which has posted about Illinois county wind debates on its Facebook page. Hartke said he is drawn to work with wind opponents in other states through a sense of “camaraderie” and altruism. He says that he is also active in watchdog campaigns around Dynegy’s storage of coal ash in Vermilion County. And while he supports nuclear energy, he opposed the “bailout” offered to Exelon’s nuclear plants in Illinois’ energy law.

Peznowski said she doesn’t know if there are larger interests funding opposition to wind in Ford County, but she worries that outside opponents like Hartke are spreading misinformation.

Reinert likewise said that as a nurse she is committed to science-based evidence, and she resents the alarmist anti-wind messages being spread by Hartke and other opponents.

In testimony in Ford and other counties, Hartke, Martis and attorney Phil Luetkehans have repeatedly cited several experts including Illinois acoustic scientist Paul Schomer and Michigan professor Jerry Punch, and high-profile wind energy controversies including in Falmouth, Massachusetts.

Critics say that giving widespread exposure to a few experts and situations presents a biased view of the science and evidence around wind farm impacts.

Luetkehans, a long-time attorney for government officials and the lead Republican lawyer in the impeachment proceedings of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, presented 18 exhibits over more than an hour at the Ford County hearing.

“He brings these three big cardboard boxes to every hearing. I don’t know what’s in them, but I think he does it to intimidate us,” Peznowski said.

Luetkehans said he has been representing citizens groups on wind-related issues in Illinois for about three years. He said larger organizations are not funding such efforts.

“I’ve never seen a national organization pay for any people fighting wind turbines in Illinois,” he said. “These are people raising money, donating their own money – sometimes doing chicken dinners and bake sales.”

Farmer Denny Jordan has lived in Ford County his entire life; his great-great-grandfather was one of the first homesteaders in the area, he said. Apex’s proposed wind farm overlaps with his land, and he would like to see more wind development and lease land for a turbine. He said he knows some of his neighbors don’t want wind turbines on their land, “and that’s their prerogative.”

But he resents Hartke and others from outside the county entering the local debate. He wrote a letter to the local paper, the Ford County Record, calling Hartke an “interloper” who gives “a well-rehearsed presentation, complete with emotions,” which he sees as “meddling” and “trying to kill our opportunity for wind projects.” Jordan said that after his letter appeared, people from other states wrote responses. “How would they see the little Paxton paper?” he asked.

Jordan thinks a 3,250-foot setback requirement would crush his and others’ chances of leasing land for wind turbines, and deprive the county of needed tax revenue.

“When I weigh the pros and cons, the only thing is do I really want to look at [wind turbines]?” he asked. “Maybe not. But it’s going to help the school district, it should relieve the tax burden on local people, and that’s not just the people who get a wind mill – that’s everybody.”

Kari has written for the Energy News Network since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.