Rochelle officials concerned with HB 4412’s impact on local enterprise zone area

City of Rochelle officials are concerned with a piece of recent state legislation’s potential future impact on a portion of the Lee-Ogle Enterprise Zone that is in and nearby Rochelle.

‘We didn't make all of that investment to support windmills and solar panels’

ROCHELLE — City of Rochelle officials are concerned with a piece of recent state legislation’s potential future impact on a portion of the Lee-Ogle Enterprise Zone that is in and nearby Rochelle. 

House Bill 4412 is a recently-signed state law that sets statewide standards for wind and solar farm siting and takes away previous local controls such as at the county level. The state would effectively be able to greenlight large solar or wind developments without the say of local governing bodies. 

City Economic Development Director Jason Anderson told the News-Leader March 1 that the legislation has him concerned for the Lee-Ogle Enterprise Zone area on the south east side of Rochelle reaching into Lee County. Over $75 million has been invested in the area by the city, county, state and federal governments on infrastructure upgrades aimed at attracting future industrial development. Anderson’s fear is that a solar or wind developer could make a deal to put a large development into the area and have it greenlighted without the city’s, counties’ or enterprise zone’s say, making all of that development investment for naught. 

“The big issue from an economic development perspective is that HB 4412 should be amended or a trailer bill should follow to carve out enterprise zones,” Anderson said. “We're not against solar or wind. But we should have the authority so say where it goes, not the state. It should be a local decision. We should have the right to say yes or no."

An enterprise zone is a specifically-defined area where incentives are available to businesses that locate there, most notably a tax abatement on real estate taxes. That same area on the south east side of Rochelle recently attracted Wheatland Tube (Zekelman Industries), which made a capital investment of over $100 million in the former Nippon Sharyo facility and brought at least 125 jobs paying an average pay rate of $50,000 or more per year before benefits.

Anderson said creating the enterprise zone and winning the designation for it required “a lot of effort.” It was founded by the city, Ogle County, Lee County and the City of Dixon. Investments made in the south east Rochelle portion include a new well and radium plant, water tower, electrical substation, Steward Road overpass, sewer line, water line and road improvements. 

“The primary objective of an enterprise zone is to create jobs and bring new investment,” Anderson said. “New buildings and new factories bring taxes and fund schools and city services. Lee County previously said no solar or wind projects were allowed in this area and made a resolution protecting it. HB 4412 comes in and says the state ultimately will decide and told counties that they must make permitting as permissible as the state would make it. There were counties all across the state that were forbidding any kind of wind or solar. This has taken away the counties' authority to do the permitting."

Anderson said the city is waiting for clarification on what the legislation means to its ability to approve or deny any zoning within a mile and a half of Rochelle, which would apply to the enterprise zone. If that doesn’t protect the area, he said he wants enterprise zones carved out of the bill and protection for the state-certified enterprise zones. 

City Manager Jeff Fiegenschuh stressed that the city did not make previous investments in the area to support solar panels or windmills. 

“They don't create a lot of jobs or add equalized assessed value long term,” Fiegenschuh said. “Solar panels and windmills depreciate in value over time. A business like Wheatland Tube does not depreciate over time. One of the things that drew that business to Rochelle was that property being in the enterprise zone. That's why it's such a valuable tool to our community.”

The city and Rochelle Municipal Utilities have invested in infrastructure in the area with additional future industrial growth in mind. Rochelle is also one of the few cities in the state with its own short-line railroad, which also is utilized in the enterprise zone area and would be negatively impacted by the allowance of a large solar or wind power development, Fiegenschuh said. 

Anderson and Fiegenschuh said industrial growth in the area has increased the city’s equalized assessed value, which has resulted in keeping the city’s tax levy and residents’ property taxes down. 

“I'm not against solar, but they don't fund city services,” Fiegenschuh said. “Places like Wheatland Tube that use city power and provide high-paying jobs and work with the community are what we want in our community. Solar is great, but it's one-dimensional. Businesses that invest and come here are 10-dimensional because of all the value they bring to our community."

The enterprise zone area could be attractive to solar and wind power developers due to its proximity to RMU and ComEd’s new Ritchie Road substation, where they could potentially tie into a transmission line to send power onto the grid. 

Anderson said he knows of solar developers that are talking to landowners in the enterprise zone to get them to sign onto a project. 

“We know this is going to become a difficult thing going forward because people can sell their land to whoever they want,” Anderson said. “The interesting part about it is the asking price for all this land has increased from $20,000 per acre in 1999 to $50,000 an acre now. We think it's a win-win for the landowners to allow us to continue to keep this as an enterprise zone and keep the wind and solar folks in other areas where $70 million has not been spent on infrastructure.”

The city is working with State Sen. Win Stoller on the issue, who has submitted a shell bill to amend HB 4412 to say that enterprise zones and municipally-owned railroads should be exempt from the requirement that allows the state to decide on wind and solar power. 

Former State Rep. Tom Demmer is now the Lee County Industrial Development Association’s executive director, which gives him a vested interest in the issue. Anderson said Demmer will be using his legislative experience to work on protecting the Lee-Ogle Enterprise Zone from HB 4412’s effects. 

“We know that there's a lot of people out there that, once educated on this, will support changes to this legislation,” Anderson said.  “I think we have a pretty good chance. Sen. Stoller has really taken the lead on this and submitted a shell bill that we'll put the guts into. He and Tom are going to work together to get this thing passed.”

Fiegenschuh said he believes local control for cities and counties is “of absolute importance.”

“If you look at the way our community has grown and all of the money the city, state and federal government have invested in this area, it makes sense for it to be industrial growth because it's going to grow over time. It's a good use of the land. Having solar there is maybe a good use, but it's not as high of a use as industrial commercial growth that adds value to the community. Our people want jobs and to see the town grow. The only way that's going to happen is by supporting the current businesses we have and seeing more growth happen. And it happens in this enterprise zone.”