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Wind energy law is readied

After months of work and revisions, an amendment to the Navajo County zoning ordinance that addresses wind energy generation is ready for possible adoption.

Planning and zoning commission members were expected to vote on the ordinance at a meeting set for 6 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 21. The board of supervisors will be asked to make the final decision at a meeting set for 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 26.

Since the first draft of the proposed ordinance was completed, a number of changes have been made. The changes were a result of several meetings with residents and experts in alternative energy production.

The proposed ordinance notes that the purpose is to specify special use permit requirements for wind energy projects and to establish standards for such facilities. Among the issues addressed by the new rules are permitting, construction, operation, maintenance and decommissioning.

Both general and specific requirements for developers are outlined in the nine-page proposed ordinance. Copies of the proposal are available from the planning and zoning department.

Among the requirements are re-vegetation of temporary roads used during construction, placement of electrical lines underground whenever possible, blending of structures and buildings into the existing environment as much as possible, and completion of pre- and post-construction wildlife studies.

Strobe lighting is prohibited on the wind turbine towers in the proposed ordinance, unless it is specifically required by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The towers must also be placed and designed in a way that minimizes risk to birds and bats.

If a special use permit is issued for a wind energy project, the permit holder must post a bond equal to the amount of the estimated cost of decommissioning the project. The bond will be adjusted every five years, based on updated estimates. The proposed ordinance notes, however, that the bond requirement may be changed by the board of supervisors.

“The board of supervisors, upon the recommendation of the county attorney and the director of public works, may approve variations from the requirements of this paragraph (regarding the bond) if warranted by the particular circumstances of a project,” the ordinance states.

Noise levels, which were a major concern for many residents near the boundary of proposed projects, make up more than a page of the nine-page proposed ordinance, as well as a four-page supplemental document.

In short, the proposed ordinance requires measurements of existing sound levels prior to construction, which are then compared to sound measurements taken once the facility is in operation. Noise levels may not exceed the greater of either 45 decibels or the measured background level plus five decibels.

If a permit holder is found to be out of compliance with the sound ordinance, the equipment causing the excessive noise must be taken out of service until the problem is fixed.

Setback distances were also a major concern for nearby residents. Distances established by the proposed ordinance for privately owned land are 750 feet for adjoining parcels that are 40 acres or larger, 1,000 feet for adjoining parcels that are 20 to 39.9 acres, 1,320 feet for adjoining parcels that are 2.51 to 19.9 acres, and 2,640 feet for adjoining parcels that are 2.5 acres or smaller.

For all other adjacent properties, such as those zoned commercial or owned by the government, the setback is 1.1 times, or 110 percent of, the total tower height. Towers must also be placed at least one-quarter mile from any roadway, and 1.5 times the total tower height from any railway or utility line.

Exceptions may be made to the proposed setbacks with approval from adjacent property owners.

The proposed ordinance also includes a public outreach requirement. Under the proposal, developers must contact all property owners within one mile of the project boundary. The developer must also hold at least two public meetings and establish a website that allows the public to submit comments on the project.

County officials are still accepting public comments on the proposed ordinance. Comments can be sent by e-mail to REPublicComments@NavajoCountyAz.gov, mailed to P.O. Box 668 in Holbrook, or made in person at the planning and zoning commission meeting or the board of supervisors meeting.