Wind Power Ordinances Take Shape

May 9, 2008
| By Pete Daly |
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WALKER — Wind-generated electricity isn't exactly a gold rush in northern Kent and Ottawa counties, but there is definitely a rush on. The rushing is by city, township and county officials trying to get a handle on what will be allowed within their jurisdictions, even as they field a growing number of requests from people and companies interested in installing electricity-producing wind turbines, known as WECS: wind energy conversion systems.

A subcommittee of the Walker city council will begin the process today of developing an ordinance there, prompted by a casual inquiry in late April from television station WZZM 13 about possible installation of rooftop wind generators on its studio building on 3 Mile Road, said Walker City Planner Frank Wash. Janet Mason, WZZM 13 president and general manager, declined to comment on the station’s plans.

At the same time, several townships north of Walker are scrambling to enact ordinances in response to residents who have leased their wind rights lately to companies interested in building commercial "wind farms" there.

On Tuesday the Sparta Township planning commission will look at a proposed "met tower" ordinance, according to Township Clerk Bonnie Robinson.

"We've already got a request for one of those," she said, referring to the plans by Iberdrola Renewables to build a meteorological tower on the Dick Shephard farm that would test the feasibility of building a commercial wind farm there.

"But we’re also looking to do a whole ordinance on wind towers, too," she added, not just the test towers.

The Ottawa County Planning Commission will be hosting a wind energy symposium in early June, according to planning director Mark Knudsen. He said the meeting will be for anyone interested in wind energy, including township officials who regulate the installation and use of wind turbines.

"We have been getting a lot of calls from wind generating companies who potentially want to locate in Ottawa County," he said. "It appears as though Ottawa County is on the cusp of getting a lot of requests to local governments" for permits to install WECS.

"We want to encourage local units (of government) to promote this type of energy," said Knudsen, adding that the planning commission wants to create a model ordinance "that looks at safety issues, looks at aesthetic issues — but doesn't become so rigid that it becomes prohibitive for a potential installation."

In northeast Ottawa County, Mary Ledford at the Wright Township office said a number of individuals and some companies have contacted the township over the last six to eight months regarding installation of WECS there.

Ledford said there is no reference to wind generator installations in the township’s local ordinances, and if the specific subject is not mentioned in the ordinance book, she said, "Then it's not allowed." That point was made by several township officials contacted by the Business Journal.

"We wanted to be pro-active and get something going, because it takes quite awhile to get an ordinance finished and on the books," said Ledford, who until recently was the Wright planning commission secretary.

"So we began to work on one — and since then it's just mushroomed," said Ledford. "At almost every planning commission (meeting), it seems like there's a different salesman there who is interested in selling wind generators."

The commercial generation companies "are real interested in the Ridge area," she added, referring to the high ground known locally as the Fruit Ridge.

The first actual construction related to a commercial wind farm will start this spring in Chester Township, which unlike its neighboring townships, enacted a WECS ordinance a couple of years ago, according to Township Clerk Jan Redding.

"For once we were sort of ahead of the curve," she said, mainly because the township had already begun to hear from local residents that they were being asked to lease their wind rights.

Several townships in both Kent and Ottawa counties are getting professional help drafting their WECS ordinances from Tim and Janis Johnson, the principals of MainStreet Planning, a Grand Rapids consulting company on matters pertaining to land-use planning and zoning.

Janis Johnson said the flurry of activity to draft WECS ordinances mainly has happened in the last four months. She said that activity is not driven only by the interest two companies have in building commercial wind farms in the area, but also by individual homeowners and businesses wanting to install them. “Everything is happening all at once," she said.

Tim Johnson said WECS is "something new the planning world has to wrestle with."

The Johnsons have had their consulting business for about 15 years, and he noted that the buzz about wind turbines "is not unlike 10 or 15 years ago when satellite dishes became popular. Many communities had to quickly amend their ordinances," he said. But since then, advances in technology have eliminated much of that controversy. For example, satellite dishes now are much smaller and can be mounted unobtrusively on a roof or wall.

Controversial issues involving wind turbines are related to the height of the tower, the alleged noise of the blades moving through the air, an alleged threat to birds, and the "shadow flicker" caused by very large wind turbines casting long, flickering shadows at sunset, said Janis Johnson.

Tower height "is a biggie" among opponents of commercial wind farms, she said.

In their research for WECS ordinances, the Johnsons involved Mark Bauer of Bauer Power in Wayland, who sells and installs wind and solar energy equipment.

Bauer said he helped the Johnsons by explaining and translating technical terms and issues related to wind turbines.

"It’s a novelty," said Bauer, explaining that there are misconceptions and even “urban legends” related to wind turbines. For one thing, he believes wind turbines mounted on a rooftop in an urban setting are generally subjected to too much turbulent air to operate at maximum efficiency. But, he said, "I expect the home wind market to explode because of the cost of energy," he said.

"We put in small and medium-sized turbines all the time," said Bauer. "We put in two last week."

Last year, Bauer Power installed about 30 wind turbines.

Individuals have different reasons for installing them, he said.

"Some are putting one in to be seen, some to make power, and some because they always wanted one," he said.

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