As alternative energy grows in popularity, the Frederick County Commissioners have started to ponder zoning for residential solar and wind energy systems.
The new law would outline locations and lot sizes where such systems would be allowed. Planning staff members are expected to a draft ordinance to the commissioners some time this summer.
“We want to encourage (small scale energy generation) without failing to account for some of the legitimate concerns people have about the right scale or the right place,” said Commissioner Kai Hagen.
The ordinance will likely focus on power generation as an accessory use to residential or agricultural properties, said Frederick County Zoning Officer Larry Smith.
It could also include generation as an accessory to a commercial use; Mount St. Mary’s University has inquired about adding wind systems at the college, he said.
The zoning ordinance is now silent on these systems, which creates a problem for people interested in adding them, especially wind power generation.
Many solar panels are installed on existing structures and wouldn’t need special zoning approval. But wind systems typically include towers or free-standing structures and would require zoning approval.
The Maryland Energy Administration has developed a model zoning ordinance for wind power, and Carroll County adopted a new zoning law this month to allow small wind turbine energy systems.
In the Carroll County ordinance, wind turbines with power up to 50 kilowatts are allowed in all zoning districts, with a maximum height of 150 feet. In some zoning districts, the height is shorter.
Mike Maring, the Carroll County bureau chief of Permits and Inspections, said the county decided to look at a wind turbine ordinance because people have been calling every other day asking questions about installing those systems.
Before the new law was adopted, residential systems were not permitted in Carroll’s zoning ordinance.
Frederick County Commissioners President Jan Gardner said Frederick County should be ready for and encourage the use of small scale systems.
“Certainly these energies are better for the environment, but I think now that they are better for people’s pocketbooks, there will be more interest for these alternatives than there has been in the past.”
But developing regulations will be a challenge.
The commissioners will have to decide how tall towers can be in residential neighborhoods, if they should adopt noise requirements, and if solar and wind should have completely different regulations.
Hagen said he’d like the commissioners to take their time in evaluating the ordinance, because strict standards might preclude some new technologies. The commissioners want reasonable limitations, he said, to make sure tall towers go where they are most appropriate, like on big farms with plenty of space between properties.
Commissioner Charles Jenkins said the real hurdle for expanding wind power will rest with homeowners associations. Solar power is already protected under state law from prohibition by those associations.
“Do the HOAs want to start letting people have 30 feet tall poles off their roof for a wind turbine?” Jenkins asked.
Commissioner John L. Thompson Jr. said consideration of the new section to the ordinance would be similar to problems faced whenever the commissioners take up zoning law.
Though the county wants to encourage alternative energy, it also needs to consider the rights of property owners and their neighbors, he said.
“It involves the careful balancing of the competing interests involved.”
But there is a historical precedent for small scale wind power in Frederick County, he said.
Before power lines, limited amounts of electricity were generated on farms by windmills.
The Maryland Energy Administration hopes to work with local governments to expedite putting wind power systems in place, said Brandon Farris, policy director at the administration.
Without more generation in Maryland, the state will face rolling blackouts by 2011.
“We’ve identified it as a priority,” Farris said. “Our motto is ‘Every kilowatt helps.'”
By Meg Bernhardt
13 May 2008
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