Educational, environmentally responsible, free and even pastoral, the project listed on the Torrance Unified School District board meeting agenda June 16 sounded innocuous enough.
Buried in the consent calendar – reserved for routine matters for which no discussion is generally needed – the item concerned a $10,000 grant from British Petroleum for a “windmill.”
“The windmill can teach as well as conserve, by introducing the students to electricity and currents, in alignment with the California Content Standards for Science, while also harnessing a green form of electricity,” read, in part, the brief agenda description.
The description conjures up an image of a quietly humming, gently rotating structure. And if windmills are good enough for the Dutch countryside, one must certainly be appropriate for Torrance suburbia on the campus of Hickory Elementary School.
But when some neighbors of the school received a letter from the principal the next month inquiring whether the they had any “questions, concerns or insights” about this “fantastic opportunity for our citizens of tomorrow!” some began to wonder.
They had never heard about the “small wind turbine” that Principal Edna Schumacher wrote would have a “minimal visual and auditory impact on our surrounding neighborhood.”
Actually, the “small wind turbine” was 33 feet tall and topped with 12-foot diameter rotor blades that increased the overall height to almost 40 feet.
It would create a noise the Redondo Beach distributor of the turbine described “as around 45 decibels, which is about the equivalent of a dishwasher.”
And it would sit on an elementary school campus, perhaps becoming an attractive nuisance for vandals or a hazard for adventurous kids who might climb it, some residents feared. And what if it fell?
“My concern is a safety issue and a noise issue and an aesthetic issue,” said Karen Galvin, who lives five homes down from the school but hadn’t heard about the turbine until a neighbor told her.
“I think it’s going to be an eyesore,” she added. “I enjoy the peacefulness of the birds and squirrels, but I don’t want to listen to a windmill.”
Especially one with a whir as loud as a dishwasher 24 hours a day, including the time when residents are sleeping.
District Superintendent George Mannon defends the idea.
The district was not required by law to alert residents to the project before it was addressed at a public meeting, he said. As for the letter sent to a few residents after the fact: “That’s the way we did it,” Mannon said.
He insisted the “windmill” was not as tall as residents contended, saying the blade length should not be included in the overall height of the structure.
And Mannon maintained a school campus was a perfectly appropriately location for this type of turbine.
“This is a residential one, not a commercial one,” he said. “I think there’s a difference between the two. Our understanding is residential turbines like this are in residential neighborhoods behind homes.”
It turns out Mannon’s understanding is wrong, at least locally.
Bob Hayes, the owner of the Redondo Beach firm selling the turbine, said he has installed about 20 of the machines, but none in the South Bay.
Zoning is an obstacle in many communities, which have banned structures that high on residential lots. And even in cities that do allow them, the application process is so lengthy and expensive it’s not worth the bother, he said, although some cities such as Rolling Hills are showing an interest.
But school districts aren’t subject to local zoning laws.
Instead, they must win approval for such projects from the obscure Division of the State Architect.
Mannon said district planning staff told him the turbine doesn’t need a permit because it is not over 35 feet tall and is therefore exempt.
Not so, said Shaf Ullah, regional manager of the agency’s Los Angeles office. Wind turbine technology is not addressed in the agency’s list of exemptions. A wind turbine of any height requires a permit, he said.
Permits at issue
On the other hand, his office has never denied a school district seeking a turbine anyway.
“There’s not a whole lot we can do about it,” Ullah said. “It’s not in our jurisdiction to stop them from doing these things.”
Mannon and Hayes insist safety and access to the turbine by children is a non-issue.
Mannon likens the tower to a flagpole, and one district idea is to place benches beneath the turbine so people could sit under it, although no firm decisions have been made.
“I haven’t seen too many kids in my history that have climbed flagpoles either and there are flagpoles at every school,” he said.
“We do not fence it off,” he said. “We have them where children can play near them. They’re not climbable.”
Still, Ullah said the agency has required fences to stop people from getting to turbines.
“We want to make sure students don’t do any damage to these things,” he said. “Most of the time they would not put something like this right in the middle of campus where everybody is going to go through and touch them.”
Actually, that’s precisely where the district is considering placing the turbine.
The district received enough objections from nearby residents about noise that it is considering an alternate location closer to the center of campus than the one nearer local homes that was originally considered, Mannon said.
“Oh, wow,” Ullah said. “That’s a little unusual and sort of an innovative approach. If it works for them, that’s fine.”
However, Lisa Linowes, executive director of a New Hampshire-based nonprofit group called the Industrial Wind Action Group – formed to oppose wind turbines in residential areas and to counteract “misleading information” promulgated by the wind power industry – said that’s not fine.
“We should not be seeing these wind turbine projects close to schools or where people live,” she said, noting her group is fighting a 323-foot-tall wind turbine just 190 feet from a Rhode Island high school.
“They will perceive it as safe because of where it is.”
Paul Kenyon, a Vermont wind turbine enthusiast who lives “off the grid” and designs and installs “personal wind systems,” agrees.
“It would be foolish and unneighborly to install anything like a small wind turbine without adhering to rigorous safety standards,” he wrote in an e-mail to Jim Lewis, who has lived opposite the Torrance school for 33 years.
Lewis contends that even under the best conditions the South Bay is inappropriate for a wind turbine anyway.
He has found that the National Climatic Data Center determined mean wind speeds – meaning half were higher and half lower – in Los Angeles and Long Beach are 6 to 9 mph.
That’s not enough for operation of the turbine, according to the manufacturer, which said minimum wind speeds should be 10 mph and the optimal speed 12 mph.
And residents say the location in the center of campus is hardly ideal, especially since the site is surrounded by classroom buildings.
Lewis calls the whole proposal, its implications and its aftermath “just weird.”
For instance, he didn’t receive the letter from Schumacher until July 5 – almost three weeks after the board’s decision.
“This letter was the first anyone knew about it,” Lewis said. “We were just shocked this could happen without notifying anybody.”
Galvin is mobilizing the neighborhood and hopes people will show up at a school district meeting tonight to complain.
“It’s imperative we show opposition to this thing. Otherwise it’s going to get shoved down our throats, which is what the school district has done already,” she said.
“The biggest issue, I think, is the school is not being a good neighbor.
By Nick Green, Staff Writer
20 July 2008
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