In accordance with Rice Township’s Comprehensive Plan, established in 2005, which serves as a blueprint for the township’s future needs and development, the planning commission revised the township’s entire zoning ordinance.º
“The Comprehensive Plan tells us where we are, where we want to be and to anticipate future needs,” said Tom Cherry, planning commission administrator, “so far, no ordinance has had anything about regulating windmills, known as wind parks. It is an entirely new issue at the forefront along with other energy sources. Windmills was something that made us think about Holland.”
Cherry had been working with Jack Varaly, a professional planning consultant for the past two years on a complete update on the township’s zoning ordinance prompted by advances in technology and new energy sources, especially those relevant to the area of wind energy facilities.
So far, the township has not been approached for the construction of a wind park. “But it can happen, and we need to have something on the books,” said Cherry, “our northern border is with Hanover Township. We don’t want to end up in the same situation as Bear Creek.”
Bear Creek brought on a storm of opposition by local environmentalists, especially Defend Our Watershed, when it was disclosed that Energy Unlimited had applied to the township for erecting wind turbines not only on the Penobscot Mountain ridge, but also in the vicinity of Crystal Lake, Mountaintop’s water supply.
The proposal was complicated by the fact that the land in question is conservation zoned and was purchased by Luzerne County for its high ecological value to preserve and offer it as a recreation area to the public. Most wind parks are placed on privately owned land. The county commissioners insisted that, at the time of the purchase, they did not know that the wind rights to the parcel had been sold separately. At this time, the enterprise is in limbo with a commonwealth court ruling against Energy Unlimited.
Rice Township has already experienced a similar situation with the application o for the construction of cell towers-the township now has three of them-without guidance from their zoning ordinance.
Varaly had studied around 20 ordinances nationwide to gather ideas for what would be most suitable for Rice Township, and the result became “a mixture of those 20”.
To demonstrate just how fast the technology is changing, Varaly explains that a new version of windmills has already surfaced: the construction of individual windmills on private property to supply a portion of energy to the homeowner.
Individual windmills are not the giant structures of the wind turbine parks. They are considerably smaller, he clarified. They are around 65 to 80 feet tall, non-commercial. In this area there is a 10 kilowatt limitation for supplementation of the home’s energy supply.
“The changes in the wind industry are so quick that we will have to make amendments to the new ordinance pretty soon to consider environmental protection, decibel levels and other provisions,” said Varaly, “it has become a push-button item. We are trying to anticipate. We are learning that wind parks are not a panacea. ”
The Wind Energy Ordinance
The wind energy part of the ordinance is spelled out in great detail on six pages. It covers provisions for the application procedure required for any potential commercial enterprise. They include survey maps of the acreage, boundaries of the parcel, neighboring residences, schools, churches and other structures.Also required are standard drawings of the turbines, including the tower, base and footings, drawings of access roads, an engineering analysis and certification of the tower, showing compliance with the applicable building code.
The applicant must also submit the make, model, picture and manufacturer’s specifications including noise decibels as well as data pertaining to the tower’s safety and stability, safety results from test facilities and a completed environmental impact study.
Another requirement is a project visibility map showing the impact of topography upon visibility of the project from other locations to a radius of three miles from the center of the project.
Other requirements pertain to the minimum distance between the ground and any part of the rotor blades, an eight-feet high fence with a locking portal, no artificial lighting except to the extent required by the FAA or other applicable authority.
Provisions must be made for an automatic braking system to prevent uncontrolled rotation, overspeeding and excessive pressure on the tower structure. Other areas covered are power transmission lines, insurance levels, warning signs, federal, state and local safety standards. Mandatory inspections for structural and operational integrity must be submitted to the township.
Under “Siting and Installation”, the ordinance requires minimal disturbance of the site from new roads to minimize adverse environmental impact, combining transmission lines and underground wiring between wind turbines and the wind energy facility.
The ordinance also covers setbacks, nuisance, environmental, visual issues and traffic routes. In addition, the applicant must provide the township with information in regard to the anticipated life of the project, the decommissioning costs, assurance that funds for these costs will be available as well as a an adequate demolition bond for purposes of removing the facility should the applicant not be able to do so. Proof of this bond must be provided each year throughout the life of the project.
By Anneliese Moghul
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