WHITEHALL, Wis. – After 14 months of deliberation, the Trempealeau County Board of Supervisors voted 10-6 Monday night for a controversial zoning ordinance that developers say stifles commercial wind energy development.
The ordinance, which wind advocates and opponents believe may be the strictest in the nation, was based on health and safety concerns as well as quality of life, said a citizens’ committee that drafted the ordinance.
The 16-page ordinance requires turbines over 150 feet high – most commercial wind towers are about 300 feet – to be at least a mile from the nearest home and a half-mile from neighboring property lines. Additional setbacks keep turbines away from roads, railroads, wildlife refuges and other places.
That makes every square inch of the county off limits to commercially viable wind energy, according to AgWind Energy Partners, an investment group that had hoped to build a wind farm on one of three sites.
As Wisconsin tries to catch up with neighboring states in renewable energy investment, wind advocates say Trempealeau County will be left behind. The investors are now turning to Buffalo and La Crosse counties.
Wisconsin is one of the most restrictive states when it comes to wind turbines, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Christine Real de Azua, assistant director of communications, said Trempealeau County’s ordinance could be the strictest in the country.
Lisa Linowes, executive director of the anti-wind Industrial Wind Action Group, said she’s never seen a one-mile setback and a noise ordinance with so much guidance.
Because the organization believes the costs and potential environmental impact of wind turbines outweighs its electricity output, Linowes said Trempealeau County’s ordinance is a model for other small counties.
Wind energy advocates said it conflicts with state energy policy.
“Trempealeau County is moving in the exact opposite direction of the state’s goal,” said Michael Vickerment, president of the non-profit renewable energy organization called RENEW Wisconsin. “If all counties were to take the same track as here, renewable energy would slow to a standstill.”
Kevin Lein, the county’s zoning director, said the ordinance is meant to promote small-sized wind turbines.
With 41 wind turbines, Trempealeau County could harvest enough electricity to power about 35,000 homes, AgWind managing director Jim Naleid said. That could have meant $500,000 in taxes for the county.
Committee member Dan Wallery said the health and safety of residents should come before revenue.
Health, aesthetic concerns
Careful turbine placement can prevent decreased property values, citizen lawsuits and groundwater contamination, said committee member Christine Custer.
According to the citizens’ committee that drafted the ordinance, turbines can cause sleep disruption, bodily harm, ice projection from blades, seizures and disruption to emergency communication lines. They cited acoustic engineers, wildlife agencies, national and state wind associations, wind turbine manufacturers and scientific agencies.
“These aren’t just pieces we grabbed out of thin air,” Custer said. “It would be a mistake to make tweaks to the ordinance without research.”
An environmental impact study by the National Academies, a congressional research agency, supports many of the committee’s charges, but does suggest the need for more peer-reviewed studies and government guidance.
Galesville, Wis., resident Ron Winn said the group was biased against wind energy, but well-intentioned.
“Mathematically, they could be right. You could have a perfect storm and create a certain scenario, but it’s never happened,” said Winn, who partnered with AgWind for a retirement investment. “The bottom line is they don’t want it, and most of it is visual.”
Naleid said he “appreciated” the health and safety concerns but disagreed with “virtually everything.” He said the committee made it sound like they’re talking about a nuclear or coal plant.
Supervisor Paul Halderson voted against the ordinance, expressing concern that the county is not addressing its responsibility to help generate renewable energy.
Supervisor Arild Engelien said he voted for it out of concern that the moratorium in place to allow the county to draft the ordinance would have expired, allowing unrestricted wind farm development.
The ordinance may not be perfect, but Engelien said it can be adapted in the future.
By Amber Dulek
19 December 2007
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