WindAction Editorials filed under Zoning/Planning
Wind energy is unreliable.
On March 27, 2009, residents of Mars Hill living within 3600 feet of First Wind's wind facility filed a civil complaint in Maine's Superior Court seeking relief from the "significant harm" caused by First Wind and others by the construction and operation of the site. Medical professionals recognize the health problems related to the turbines at Mars Hill are valid.
The public push for renewable energy solutions has quickly filtered into the business and personal market and more and more communities are finding themselves confronted with some of the same land use issues we see with utility-scale turbines. Establishing appropriate siting standards to address minimum lot size, maximum tower heights, property line setbacks, and noise levels are essential in ensuring adjacent properties are not harmed and the health and safety of the public are maintained.
This year, the City of Newburyport, Massachusetts paved the way for large-scale wind turbines within the city limits. A three-person subcommittee was formed in January, 2008 and charged with writing an ordinance governing the siting and construction of turbines.
A zoning variance is an administrative exception to the land use regulations for a municipality. A property owner can obtain permission to "break" a zoning law if applying the existing law either renders his property unbuildable or otherwise causes hardship to the landowner. It is the burden of the applicant to justify the hardship claim.
Earlier this year, Windaction.org reported on efforts by Roxbury, Maine town officials, together with Independence Wind LLC, to push through zoning changes that would permit industrial wind development in the town. Shortly thereafter, the town residents voted overwhelmingly in favor of a citizen petition to adopt a 180-day moratorium on wind power development. The intent of the moratorium was to give the town time to rewrite the zoning to be consistent with the town's Comprehensive Plan (adopted in 1993), and provide appropriate protections for town residents.
The State of New Hampshire, long recognized for respecting local governance, stepped over the bounds last month when the Governor signed into law HB 310, a statute oddly described as “allowing municipalities to regulate small wind energy systems”. In fact, the law is designed to deliberately remove authority from municipalities by establishing prohibitions on what a community can and cannot regulate.
Windaction.org is closely tracking the controversies surrounding wind energy development in the State of Illinois. Six major projects have received substantial press coverage just in the last two months. The appeal of one project is headed to court; others are certain to follow suit.
Last month, Barrington, RI voters approved plans to fund and erect a $2.4 million wind turbine to power the local high school. Town leaders anticipate the 600 KW turbine to supply a substantial portion of the school's energy demand. Windaction.org tried to determine a cost breakdown, expected electric generation, and suggested payback period but documentation on the Town's website showed numbers to be inconsistent and difficult to reconcile. For example, documents put the turbine cost at $1.4 million installed with published annual capacity factors varying between 19% and 25%. Further, no wind studies were done to gauge whether the marginal area winds meshed with periods of high demand.
Independence Wind, LLC which includes Former Maine Governor Angus King as a principal, is seeking to build a 50 megawatt wind energy facility in rural Roxbury, Maine. King's authority to build the project is governed by a poorly-written zoning amendment rushed to the voters last March. The amendment permits industrial wind turbines, but establishes no setback buffers, noise limits, or other requirements necessary to protect the residents and real property from the large-scale development.
Wind Powering America (WPA), part of the U.S. Department of Energy, is a governmental wind energy advocacy group committed to increasing the use of wind energy in the United States through funding of pro-wind non-profit organizations across the country. WPA released its 2007 annual summary report where it details its advocacy efforts and accomplishments by State. As part of this effort, Mr. Gary Seifert of DOE's Idaho National Laboratory Wind Power program and Wind Powering America travels the mountain states of Idaho and Montana advocating for large-scale wind development. Earlier this month Mr. Seifert -- "representing himself as a neutral party" -- showed up at public hearings held by the local Bingham County Zoning and Planning Commission. The proposal before the commission entails building 81 miles of road and erecting 150 wind turbines across the expansive Wolverine Canyon, an area designated as a Natural Resource/Agriculture district that does not permit industrial, energy-producing structures.
Within two days of the vote by Wisconsin's Calumet County Board of Supervisors to amend its wind energy ordinance governing safe placement of commercial turbines, Midwest Wind Energy's Tom Swierczewski distributed a memorandum to select landowners in the county in which he laid out his strategy to bypass local authorities and file an application with the State's Public Service Commission (PSC). According to Midwest's website, the company has now decided to nearly double the Stony Brook Wind Farm proposal in order to meet the State's minimum requirement of 100+ megawatts for the PSC to assert jurisdiction.
Throughout much of the United States (and other countries) siting of wind energy development is governed primarily through local land use regulations as adopted by a host town or county. In jurisdictions with no regulations, there are no rules regarding height limitations, setback buffer requirements, noise enforcement guidelines, or other standards necessary to ensure the safe placement and operation of the turbines. Even with regulations in place, rural towns rarely have experience in large-scale developments, and their land use boards often fail to exercise the full scope of their authority to regulate wind towers.
The lack of regional system planning coupled with the haphazard political approach to incentivizing renewables in New England may adversely impact the business of two renewable generation plants in the State of Maine.
In the past year, several Wisconsin townships and counties established study committees to evaluate and recommend local ordinances for smaller renewable energy projects (as provided by State law for projects under 100 megawatts). Having carefully studied the State's draft Model Wind Ordinance, these committees found the Model to have serious flaws and unfounded recommendations, as revealed in this video segment.
The U.S. Forest Service is proposing new directives pertaining to wind energy development on national forest system (NFS) lands. To date, there are no wind energy facilities on forest lands so this direction will set the rules for an entirely new public land use across all national forests and grasslands. The Federal Register notice and other information about this matter can be accessed at http://www.thefederalregister.com/d.p/2007-09-24-E7-18715
Wind developers encumber the private land on which they propose to build a wind plant through a legal contract referred to as a Wind Energy Easement Agreement. Landowners often sign these agreements without first receiving advice from an attorney. An attorney reviewed one such agreement. His comments, embedded in this document http://www.windaction.org/documents/11774 , highlight the common pitfalls of signing without legal advice. A second contract, often referred to as a Good Neighbor Agreement, might be executed between a developer and landowners who own property near the project site but whose land will not host turbines. One agreement can be found at http://www.windaction.org/documents/11807 along with comments provided by an attorney. Other examples of agreements can be found on windaction.org at http://www.windaction.org/documents/2435