New wind turbines in Winona County may not be required to be set back as far from property lines as suggested in a draft zoning ordinance chapter, after Planning Commission members relaxed several setback provisions following a public hearing Thursday night.
The newest draft Chapter 12 of the Winona County Zoning Ordinance will face a second public hearing before the County Board in the coming weeks, which will make a final determination on the regulations for wind and other renewable energy systems. When the County Board approved the entire new zoning ordinance late last year, it was with the knowledge that the renewable energy regulations it contained were flawed. So when the board approved the full zoning ordinance, it did so with the directive to the Planning Commission to fix Chapter 12.
The Planning Commission has been working on the chapter for several months, and has fluctuated in proposed setbacks for turbines. For the biggest wind turbines, some commissioners supported some of the most stringent setbacks in industry standards — five times the diameter of the rotor blades, then settled on three times the diameter of the rotor blades for the draft aired on Thursday. But following some remarks from a representative of Juhl Wind, Inc. that affirmed higher setbacks would mean less wind energy in Winona County, Planning Commission members voted to reduce the required setbacks to 1.1 times the total height of the tower.
Larger wind turbines that generate more than 100kW of electricity would still be required to obtain a Conditional Use Permit, which would give county leaders the ability to mitigate setback and other concerns for larger projects.
Planning Commission members changed a handful of other regulations in the chapter, as requested in writing by Jim Jarvis. Jarvis, who owns a business specializing in renewable energy components, sat on a subcommittee last year that worked on some of the elements of the proposed renewable energy regulations. He also was forced to remove his own small wind turbine following the denial of a variance from the county during a time when there were no wind energy regulations on the books at all.
One request from Jarvis that was adopted by the commission included standards for roof-mounted solar panels that would have placed a two-foot setback from the roof edge on systems with a greater pitch than the roof. Jarvis said in his letter that the regulation would pose an issue in the winter, when snow could become stuck on the roof and over the panel, rendering the system inoperational.
Commissioners also clarified a requirement that new turbines be certified by an engineer as being able to be safely mounted to an alternative base, as the old language implied that even those turbines not using an alternative structure must attain such certification.
One portion of the proposed new rules was debated at length by Planning Commission members. “The applicant shall minimize or mitigate interference with electromagnetic communications, such as radio, telephone, microwaves, or television signals caused by any [Wind Energy Conversion System],” reads the draft.
Most commissioners seemed to agree that it would not be acceptable if, for instance, a large turbine disrupted emergency radio tower communication. But how to determine if a turbine would pose such a risk, as well as how to measure potential interference or a reduction of interference, was a question that did not find an answer on Thursday night.
Planning Commission and County Board member Marcia Ward compared the requirement to another ordinance requirement for larger turbines, asking that the turbine have an appearance that “reduces or eliminates visual obtrusiveness.” She said that vague statements like that can’t be fairly enforced.
“Is that measurable? Why put in these statements that are vague, un-measurable, un-quantifiable and subject to interpretation?” asked Ward.
While Planning Commission member Bob Peterson agreed that such performance standards needed to be measurable and based on real data, he was not comfortable removing all reference to minimizing interference with electromagnetic communications. He said if a turbine disrupted emergency communications, the county needed regulations that could be used to ensure the problem was corrected or avoided entirely.
The Planning Commission asked that staff look into ways that such interference could be predicted, studied or measured, although County Administrator Duane Hebert said the issue was complex. He told the commission that trying to measure such radio interference might be like attempts to measure odors on feedlots: while there is technology available to try to measure odors, there is a question as to its accuracy. Additionally, trying to measure and enforce such standards would require more staff in the Planning Department, he said. Hebert recommended the interference regulations be left in the document, but that they be used more as a warning for those seeking to erect a wind turbine that there may be additional scientific work necessary, or that there may be consequences if a turbine is determined to cause such interference.
The County Board is expected to hold a final public hearing on the proposed new renewable energy regulations in the coming weeks.