As the movement to build more green-energy-producing windmills in Ohio progresses, some officials hope we have learned lessons from the past.
It’s a familiar story, this windmill debate: It pits neighbor against neighbor, and it leaves government officials scratching their heads over how to regulate something new.
Not so long ago, the same things happened with cell-phone towers. In some parts of Ohio, it happened with oil rigs. And way back when, the fights were about the fence along the creek that separated pioneers’ lands.
Quite soon, some predict, the fight will be over large-scale solar panels.
So maybe, some local officials say, before the towering turbines consume Ohio’s landscape, guidelines will be established to help decide where they should go.
“It feels like we’ve been down this road before,” said Morrow County Commissioner Richard Miller.
His board recently approved zoning guidelines for wind turbines, which can be up to 400 feet tall. He said Morrow County planners researched regulations in other states to come up with a blueprint.
Miller likened the growing debate over placement of the turbines to the cellular-tower issues in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Then, local officials across Ohio found themselves in the middle of disputes between property owners and wondering what they could do to control where the cell towers could go, he said. Some disputes ended up in court.
Miller said windmills should be handled differently.
“Leadership comes from the top, and someone at the state level should see this heating up and step in to say to local government, ‘Here’s a good way to do this,’ ” he said.
Wind-energy advocates say they are trying to do exactly that. A set of guidelines is making its way through a committee of the Ohio Wind Working Group, a panel of environmentalists, scientists, advocates, educators and utility-company and agriculture representatives.
The group has no rule-making authority but expects to have the guidelines, which will deal with issues such as approval processes and setback distances from houses and property lines, ready within weeks.
Dale Arnold, director of energy services at the Ohio Farm Bureau, leads the guidelines committee. He said he hears almost daily from local officials looking for answers on an approach to wind energy.
“The ultimate control has to be local,” Arnold said. “But it certainly makes sense for a group that’s been studying wind energy to help guide procedures that will, we hope, avoid conflicts between neighbors.”
Though the installation of cellular towers is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, local and state governments occasionally deal with the issue even now, long after the towers became commonplace.
In Pataskala, the City Council is considering placement of a tower at Freedom Park. Some residents oppose it. And at the Statehouse, a House committee is examining a bill that would, among other things, add to the list of property owners who must be notified before a tower can go up near their land.
But it’s the wind-energy front that’s aflutter. Ohio legislators are dealing with two versions of renewable-energy bills, and authorities in Logan County have been wrangling for months over windmill regulations in advance of what could become Ohio’s largest wind-energy project.
The development company Babcock & Brown wants to install enough windmills to generate 148 megawatts of power (enough to power about 45,000 homes). In comparison, Ohio’s only other utility-scale wind farm is in Wood County, with four windmills capable of producing 7.4 megawatts.
Large-scale projects aren’t the only thing on the horizon. Residential use of wind power is catching on, too. Individual-use turbines are much smaller than those generating municipal power, standing between 60 and 120 feet tall. Environment Ohio says at least 34 homeowners have installed wind turbines for personal use in Ohio.
Erika Weliczko says that number is higher. She owns Repower Solutions, a Cleveland company that installs residential solar- and wind-energy systems. Though she wouldn’t give specific numbers, she said she has installed “a handful” of private windmills. She gets a lot of inquiries, though, and interest is growing.
Installation can be trouble-free in rural areas, and neighbors tend to not object too much to small-scale projects, she said. But as the trend creeps toward areas zoned residential, she expects more disputes to arise. Uniform guidelines, she said, would no doubt ease the process.
“There’s no use to re-invent the wheel,” she said. “If we want to promote renewable energy in Ohio, we have to make it easier.”
By Holly Zachariah
17 March 2008
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