FITCHBURG – The city’s Planning Board has finalized its proposed legislation regarding small wind energy systems in the city, which the City Council will be considering in the next few weeks.
The board met Thursday night, and along with a crowd of about a dozen interested residents debated issues such as how far turbines should be setback from neighboring properties, how powerful they would be and how much noise they would be allowed to make.
“At this point it is still a work in progress,” said Planning Board Chairwoman Paula Caron. “There is more to be said on the matter and the council will have an opportunity to do that.”
The City Council instructed the Planning Office to create an ordinance after multiple requests to install turbines were turned down by the city in recent years.
Planning Coordinator David Streb initially drafted an ordinance in November, which was amended in December, and again during Thursday’s meeting. The version approved on Thursday will now go to the council.
The newly drafted ordinance will reduce the amount of space required between the turbine and a neighboring occupied building as well as an abutter’s setback line.
While the initial drafts of the ordinance called for a turbine to be at least 1.5 times the height of the tower away from a habitable structure, the board reduced that to 1.1 times the height of the tower.
As for the setback to a neighboring lot, the board reduced it from 1.5 times the height of the tower to 1.1 times the height of the tower from the neighboring property’s setback requirement.
So, in essence, if a turbine’s tower was laid down, it could cross into a neighboring yard.
Caron said the new setbacks are a compromise.
“We were trying to look at it from both a technical aspect of looking at a fall zone – even knowing that they are not meant to fall over – but also from an aesthetic point of view as for the appropriate location,” she said.
Greg Lemay, a strong proponent of wind turbines whose proposal for his own 120-foot turbine was rejected by the city, said the setbacks are better, but still too strict.
“It’s too stringent,” Lemay said. “But it’s better than what they had.”
Lemay said the new setbacks allow for a greater number of residents and businesses to install turbines, but said, for example, his proposed turbine would still likely be too tall to install.
Lemay said he will continue to lobby the council to reduce the setbacks even further.
Caron said other changes from the latest draft include removing the power restrictions on the capacity of the turbines as well making the noise restrictions comparable to those in existing city and state regulations.
The legislation will now be sent on to the City Council for discussion and additional public hearings. Council President Thomas Conry said that could begin as soon as the council’s next meeting on Jan. 22.
Councilor at-large Dean Tran, who is chair of the Legislative Affairs Committee, which will likely be reviewing the ordinance, said it is important for the city to pursue renewable energy systems for government use.
“This legislation is very important because renewable energy is a replacement for oil, gas and electricity,” he said. “If we can generate enough utilities from renewable energies such as wind, we can reduce our dependence on companies such as Unitil. When we reduce our dependency, we can reduce our dependency on taxpayers having to pay for the high usage and energy by city buildings such as the wastewater facilities.”
Tran said it is important to take it “one step at a time” and said the council’s consideration of the issue will be one of the first steps.
The city will also be considering an offer by the city’s power distributor, Unitil, to visit wind turbine sites.
In December, Lemay said city officials should go to Oklahoma City to see a wind turbine factory. Planning Board members laughed off the idea given the city’s financial situation.
Unitil’s Senior Vice President of Customer Service and Communications George Gantz sent Mayor Lisa Wong, Streb and Building Commissioner Michael Gallant a letter offering to pay up to $1,200 for two employees to go to Oklahoma City.
Gantz said it is in Unitil’s interest for residents to develop renewable energy resources.
“In the short run it’s not good for us to have customers that are suffering from high bills,” Gantz said. “In the long run one thing customers can do to lower energy bills is look at renewable energy and energy efficiency.”
Furthermore, he said Unitil already has a small scale turbine placed on top of a power pole in New Hampshire and said they may be looking to expand that program to Fitchburg. Therefore, he said, Unitil has a stake in the city developing a favorable wind energy ordinance.
Gantz also invited city officials up to the company’s residential-scale wind turbine in Hampton, N.H.
Streb said it would be up to the mayor to decide if he should take up Unitil’s offer to go to Oklahoma City. He said it would likely be more realistic to visit the New Hampshire site.
Wong said she has not decided if city officials should travel to Oklahoma or New Hampshire and said she doesn’t yet have a comment about the small wind energy legislation.
“I’m a supporter of looking at alternative services,” she said. “But I want to make sure the city is prepared to have an overall plan for energy, but not just wind power.”
Wong mentioned the city should look into other forms of renewable energy, like solar, geothermal and small-scale hydropower.
Wong said her energy task force – which has not yet begun meeting – will help develop the city’s plan for such initiatives.
By Brandon Butler
12 January 2008
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