By Sean Tubbs
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Albemarle County residents who erect wind turbines on their property may be doing so in violation of the County’s zoning ordinances. However, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors has directed the Planning Commission to study how the code might be changed to enable those who wish to experiment with wind-generated electricity to do so legally.
On May 6, 2009, Supervisors and Commissioners held a joint work session in which the County’s Community Development Director and a representative of a wind-power consulting firm gave an overview of the potential costs and benefits of a new ordinance. At the conclusion of the meeting, the Board asked for staff and Commissioners to continue to research how an ordinance might be written to allow for wind turbines to be legally constructed in the County.
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In December 2007, the Board adopted the
Cool Counties initiative
, which requires the County to reduce its carbon emissions by 80% of current levels by the year 2050. While 41 years may seem like a long way away, the County has to reduce emissions by an average of 2% a year to hit that target.
“The only way we’re going ever come close to being able to do that is to really look at all the alternative forms of energy that are not going to emit greenhouse gases,” said Community Development Director Mark Graham at the beginning of his presentation. He added that the County’s
encourages the development of sustainable forms of energy.
Wind-energy can range from the small (up to 10 kilowatts) to the utility-grade (over 1 megawatt). Large and utility-size turbines can be up to 550 feet in height, however there are few places in Albemarle County that generate enough wind to make these structures cost-effective.
Placement of the turbine is one factor that planners must take into consideration while they debate the ordinance change. Graham said that in order for turbines to be cost-effective, they need to be at least 30 feet above the nearest tree in order to have a steady flow of wind without interference. They are also best placed in “micro-climates”, or pockets of the County that have abnormal amounts of high winds. Graham said any County ordinance would create a permitting process that could add to the cost of installing a turbine.
With that in mind, County staff developed a straw-man ordinance that would allow turbines to be constructed by property owners in the County’s rural areas on a tiered basis. The system is similar to what the County has in place for cell phone towers. In those cases, the impact on the viewshed is weighed against the benefits to the greater community.
Tier 1 would be for those structures that would not have a visual impact and would be allowed by-right. They could be no taller than 35’ – that’s the same maximum height for buildings in the rural area.
Tier 2 would require a waiver by the Planning Commission due to a “slightly higher” visual impact. Graham said one unique example of a Tier 2 turbine would be located on the tops of buildings in entrance corridors, so they could take advantage of wind generated by passing vehicles.
Finally, Tier 3 would require a Special Use Permit because of the high possibility of visual impacts and because they would be higher than the 35 feet allowed in the other tiers. Graham also wanted feedback from Supervisors and Commissioners to know if they would permit the collocation of personal wireless transmitters with tall turbines.
Supervisors and Commissioners also heard from Jeremy Hayes, the president of Afton-based Skyline Turbine. He was on hand to describe how some of his company’s products would fit under the County’s proposed tiered-system. Hayes said there were several incentives for homeowners to install wind turbines, including a 30% rebate offered by the federal government, the ability to sell power back to the grid, and the eventual promise of “free” electricity.
Hayes said the “helix” turbine is ideal for installation under the proposed Tier 1 guidelines because they are relatively quiet (producing under 50 decibels of noise), more appropriate in urban environments, and could produce 2.5 kilowatts of electricity.
“Depending on the wind resource, [it] can produce anywhere between 40% and 90% of most people’s electricity needs,” Hayes said. He explained the science of how installations are designed in order to maximize the power that can be generated by a turbine. Hayes added that he also offers solar power to customers, and recommends consumers install a generator that hooks up to the electric grid in order for excess electricity to be sold back to the power company at a wholesale cost.
Hayes said that smaller wind turbines would likely be more appropriate for Albemarle, given the reduced presence of winds. He said the smaller turbines begin to generate power at about 12 miles per hour, the bare minimum present in the County.
(Jack Jouett) expressed concern over the level of noise that would be generated, as well as the possibility of a property owner building one too close to a neighbor’s house.
“What I wouldn’t want to do is create a situation where we started having these get in and it was a problem for people who live nearby, perhaps visually as well as from a noise standpoint,” Rooker said. Graham said that because of the unique and special nature of wind turbines, as well as the shifting technology of turbines themselves, every situation would be different.
Supervisor David Slutzky (Rio) said he was in support of enabling County residents to install alternative forms of power, and that he would move forward with the ordinance as drafted by County staff. He said he was very excited about the possibility of allowing Albemarle residents to take advantage of the federal subsidies.
“I would promote the argument that we should move forward at least so far as to flesh out the rules for Tiers 1 and 2 and hopefully 3 and go through the public input process and see where we are,” Slutzky said.
Rooker was less enthusiastic, and wanted a public hearing before he would agree to change the ordinances. He said he was only in support of proceeding with Tier 1.
“We spent a huge amount of time and effort just to create the cell tower ordinance that we have… to reduce the visibility of cell towers in the community,” Rooker said. “What we’re talking about is approving something that would bring large tall structures of the kind that we would not approve in the form of a cell tower and allow to be put up by-right in areas of the County.” Rooker questioned whether wind-power was worth the investment compared to what he saw as greater gains from solar.
In response, Commissioner Marcia Joseph (At-Large) said she felt the ordinance should be broad enough to allow those with “micro-climates” to install larger turbines if they can show that they will generate energy. She said she herself lived in an area prone to sudden bursts of wind. Joseph said she did not want to undermine the progress that has been made with cell towers, but that supplemental regulations are needed to allow those who wish to generate power on their property.
Rooker said he could understand her view, but needed to know how the size of wind turbines would be mitigated. Joseph responded that some localities take into consideration the parcel size of the property where the wind turbine will be located.
“So if it’s in the rural area and it’s a 5-acre parcel, then the idea that this can be located so that it’s not visible and can be located so that it’s not next to a property line,” Joseph said. She said the work session was to get the Board’s feedback before going any further.
Rooker said he could support wind turbines on a farm, but had a different view of them in more urbanized areas. “I am troubled by establishing a policy that allows coming out of the box things that we may be sorry that we did,” Rooker said.
Commissioner Bill Edgerton (Jack Jouett) said that he supported the next step, which would be to draft an ordinance to allow for Tier 1 structures in the rural areas on properties of an appropriate size.
“This is a very cautious approach, far more cautious then I would like to see, but at the same time there are a lot of people who may have a lot of different opinions then I do on this,” Edgerton said.
(Samuel Miller) said she supported having staff come back with an ordinance to allow a three-tiered approach.
“I think that anything we put together we should state very forcefully our community standards which include the concern about any visual impact, mountain-skyline impact… and noise and light impacts,” Thomas said.
(Rivanna) said he was torn about how to proceed. On the one hand, he wanted to support a property owner’s right to do what they want on their land. On the other, he was resistant to the impacts that could affect neighbors. He said he was in support of moving the proposed ordinance further, but was not sure that it was a priority for the Community Development Department. Graham said that the adopted work plan anticipated that staff would work on the wind turbine ordinance.
At the end of the work session, Slutzky summed up by saying that he heard consensus from the Board to move forward with the ordinance. Rooker, who was the most skeptical, said it would be good to get public input and that he would be more supportive of an ordinance that only allowed Tier 1 structures. Joseph and Edgerton offered to donate their time to help staff do research that would go into the eventual ordinance. Lighting on wind turbines as well as co-location of cell antennas were taken off the table at the work session.
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