Wind turbines on the zoning horizon

October 6, 2008
| By Pete Daly |
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With wind turbines popping up all over the American landscape, many local officials are racing to enact zoning ordinances regulating them. In Ottawa County, where commercial wind generation companies are leasing thousands of acres for possible wind farms, at least one condominium developer with a "green" idea has already been deterred by a township zoning ordinance.

The Ottawa County planning commission doesn't want to see zoning ordinances blindly rule out all wind turbines, so they are working on a proposed model zoning ordinance they hope their local governments will refer to when revising their ordinances.

"Most of the ordinances that are being adopted at this point in time have a one-size-fits-all approach," said Mark Knudsen, director of planning for Ottawa County. "They're all kind of geared toward the large commercial-sized wind turbine. As a result, it makes it very difficult for property owners to be able to take advantage of a small wind energy system. Hopefully, we'll be able to convince some of our local units of government to adopt this ordinance, which would be more permissive toward the small and medium-sized wind turbines."

"With our (recommended model for an) ordinance, we are encouraging the utilization of wind energy in all zoning districts," he added.

The Prairie Winds condominium development being built in Zeeland Township by Bosgraaf Homes is promoted as having "50 percent green space" and energy-efficient homes. It was also going to include a 50 kilowatt wind turbine on a 100-foot tower, producing enough electricity for about 20 homes — "but the ordinance that they passed (in Zeeland Township) doesn't allow it to be in a site condominium project like ours," said Ted Bosgraaf. So Bosgraaf dropped the idea.

The Prairie Winds wind turbine would actually have been a partnership with the Zeeland Board of Public Works, which had been looking for a free site on which to erect wind turbines as "a kind of a demonstration project," according to David Walters, general manager of the ZBPW. Bosgraaf was going to donate the land for the tower; the ZBPW would have put up the tower and turbine and owned the electricity it generated. All that Bosgraff expected in return was "green" publicity for Prairie Winds, said Walters.

Bosgraff noted that Prairie Winds is located right next to Interstate 196, and a wind turbine there would have been clearly visible to thousands of motorists every day. He also said the property owners already living in Prairie Winds development thought it was a great idea.

Since then, Holland Township has donated a site in Helder Park for two 50-kilowatt turbines, which the ZBPW is erecting this fall. The turbines are expected to begin generating electricity for the ZBPW grid this winter, according to Walters.

He noted that the Michigan Legislature has passed a renewable energy portfolio standard, which, if signed by Gov. Granholm, will require utilities to get 10 percent of their electricity from alternative sources by 2015. In addition to wind generated power, the ZBPW is going to buy electricity generated from methane gas extracted from the Zeeland landfill.

Walters said wind turbines are currently a more expensive source of electricity than conventional power plants burning coal or gas. The two turbines going up at Helder Park are much smaller than conventional commercial wind farm turbines, but the ZBPW wants to "get some history, see how they operate, get a better feel for what the cost really is." He said they hope to break even on the cost in the long run, and he noted that the cost of conventional electricity "will be that much higher" in a few years.

The Ottawa County planners have been working with Michigan State University to study issues in alternative energy that will impact land use ordinances, with the goal of promoting alternative energy.

Knudsen said the proposed model for local zoning ordinances regarding wind turbines covers four types: turbines mounted on structures, small turbines mounted on stand-alone poles or towers, medium-sized turbines of up to 100 kilowatts, and large or commercial size turbines over 100 kilowatts, the type used by commercial wind farms on towers that can be as high as 500 feet.

The planners are recommending that structure-mounted turbines be allowed in any zoning district, including residential, but they are careful to address the issue of alleged turbine noise. That is "probably the single most controversial aspect of wind turbines, next to aesthetics," said Knudsen.

Small turbines on towers up to 70 feet high, generating up to 30 kilowatts, would be a recommended "right" of property owners in a residential zone but would be subject to "fall zone" distances from the property line and noise restrictions.

Medium-sized turbines would be limited to industrial, commercial and agricultural districts, as well as future condominium developments, according to Knudsen.

Last week the Ottawa County Planning Commission met to review the proposed model wind turbine ordinance, and they listened to recordings of sounds made by various types and sizes of turbines.

The text of the model ordinance presented at the meeting recommended that wind turbines in a residential zone make no perceptible noise beyond the owner's lot line.

"One of our planning commissioners raised the point, 'Well, your hearing may be better than mine. So perceptible to who?'" said Knudsen. "So we do have to go back and revise that."

As turbine technology continues to evolve, the machines are becoming quieter, said Knudsen.

At this point, however, Knudsen said, "It's a balance between encouraging green energy while at the same time protecting our neighborhoods in residential districts."

He said noise restrictions combined with proximity to neighbors may sometimes prevent wind turbines in residential zones.

"But we feel that is … a trade that we need to make. Presently in most locales, they're not allowed at all. This would allow it," said Knudsen, as long as the turbine isn't making noise that disturbs the neighbors.

Don Mannith, the Zeeland Township zoning administrator, said the township officials are planning to revise their ordinance, which at this time bans any wind generators in residential zones.

"I believe that was not totally the intent of the planning commission," said Mannith. "They would want to be able to allow smaller ones. The exact verbiage is not agreed on yet" in regard to turbine size.

He said the township planners will be looking at the county's recommended turbine ordinance.

Mannith said other issues that have to be considered are shadow flicker and removal of decommissioned turbines.

At the wind energy symposium held by the Ottawa County planning department this summer, Mannith heard that removal of non-functioning wind turbines should be "an important part of any new ordinance."

An abandoned non-functioning wind turbine could be an eyesore as well as a potential safety hazard, and a local government may be faced with the cost of removing a defunct turbine.

"Anything mechanical will break. It's just a matter of when," said Mannith. "So when they do break, if you had to have grant money to put it up, what kind of money takes it back down?"

Mannith said the township supervisor, while on vacation in the Southwest, saw a large installation of wind turbines but only a few were operating.

"It wasn't because there was no wind," said Mannith. "There must have been something wrong with them. So how long are they going to just stand there without being used? Where's the money to take them back down?"

The flickering shadows of spinning turbine blades reportedly bothers some people when it strikes their homes, even though the flicker will only be seen for a few minutes on a given spot during the day. The shadow changes position with the seasons and the time of day, but the long shadows cast at sunrise and sunset can make the potential flicker area very extensive.

"Some people don't want to see any flicker and others will say, ‘Hey, it's only going to be there for 10 minutes.’ It depends on how green you are in your thinking," said Mannith.

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