Madison Ald. Judy Compton claims she’s all for alternative energy.
In fact, the conservative-leaning real estate agent is co-sponsor of an ordinance aimed at boosting private use of solar and wind power.
But after reading the fine print and getting an opinion from the city attorney, Compton is now sounding the alarm over what she fears is flawed legislation.
“The way this is written, if your neighbor wants to put a 200-foot-tall wind tower in their front yard, there is absolutely nothing anyone can do to stop them,” said Compton, who represents the city’s far southeast side.
Phil Salkin, government affairs director for the Realtors Association of South Central Wisconsin, has his own concerns.
Salkin thinks the ordinance might be illegal since it would supersede existing homeowners agreements or protective covenants. These agreements are common in many new subdivisions or condominium projects, affecting everything from fence height in the backyard to basketball hoops in the driveway.
“This is an ill-conceived policy that” overrides private documents, Salkin said. “I’ve done some checking and there isn’t another city in the country trying something like this.”
Jeanne Hoffman, facilities and sustainability manager for the city of Madison, said state law limits the kinds of restrictions a locality can place on the installation of a solar energy or wind energy system.
Specifically, the law prohibits any county, city, town or village from placing restrictions unless they serve to “preserve or protect” public health or safety; allow an alternative system of “comparable cost and efficiency;” or do not significantly increase the cost of the system or significantly decrease its efficiency.
“We can ask the applicant to move the system to a different site on the lot if the place they move to costs the same for installation and produces the same amount of electricity,” Hoffman said.
The six-page ordinance is just starting to work its way through various city committees. The changes are backed by Mayor Dave Cieslewicz as part of his goal of doubling Madison’s use of solar energy by 2010. The city has secured $200,000 from the U.S. Department of Energy to encourage more businesses and homeowners to use solar power. Madison was also one of 25 cities to win grant money through the federal Solar America Initiative.
But already the city Urban Design Commission has raised concerns about the visual impact of large solar panel installations or wind turbines. Last week, the Plan Commission delayed action on the bill for at least 60 days to gather more input.
That the roofs of houses across the city will soon be covered with giant renewable energy installations seems unlikely. There are fewer than 120 private homes and businesses in Madison using solar power and the systems remain expensive compared to buying electricity from Madison Gas & Electric or Alliant.
At the same time, a retailer called “Off The Grid” has opened at 4261 Lien Road in Madison selling equipment for home solar installations.
As proposed, the ordinance would amend many sections of the city code and make a variety of technical changes to rules governing renewable energy systems. Most significantly, the bill would make wind and solar power a “permitted use.” That means homeowners wouldn’t need to go before the Plan Commission or City Council – just secure a permit from city staff and pay a fee.
Giving a boost to solar and wind pioneers has many backers, including east side Ald. Satya Rhodes-Conway. With growing concern about fuel prices and air pollution, she says it makes total sense for the city to be on the cutting edge of encouraging some energy alternatives.
“It’s incredibly important that we start to move toward renewable energy, if for no reason other than to reduce our reliance on coal,” said Rhodes-Conway, who noted that two coal-fired power plants in Madison remain the largest single sources of air pollution in the city.
Rhodes-Conway also dismissed concerns about the visual impact of home energy installations, saying things have changed since the 1970s when solar panels first appeared on private homes.
“The technology has come so far in the past few years,” she said.
For example, new generation “ribbon style” wind turbines can fit neatly onto the roof of a home or business. Battery technology has improved as well, making it easier to store electricity generated from solar panels.
Near-east side Ald. Marsha Rummel said one option might be to refer solar and wind applications to the Urban Design Commission and Landmarks Commission to review the placement of the devices.
Still, Compton says the council needs to take a close look at the ordinance before moving forward.
“We have rules about putting fences around a backyard swimming pool but this would let someone put up a huge tower in their yard with nothing around it,” she said. “That to me is a major public safety issue.”
30 July 2008
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