November 13, 2010

Turbines’ impact on growth at center of debate

By: DAVID HENKE, Northfield News, 12 November 2010

What would the development of two, 400-foot-tall wind turbines mean for residential development on the southeastern fringe of Northfield?

That is the question Northfield City Councilor Betsey Buckheit hopes the Northfield Planning Commission will answer. Next Tuesday, the Northfield City Council is expected to vote to send the issue to the commission for review.

Last week, Northfield’s Interim City Administrator Tim Madigan sent a letter on behalf of several Northfield City Councilors urging the Rice County Planning Commission to delay its decision on the two proposed turbines, which would be developed by Spring Creek Wind, LLC. The commission did just that, postponing its recommendation on the project until Dec. 9.

The land in question is within Northfield’s urban reserve zoning district, which extends one mile outward from the city boundaries. While the city has no real authority in the reserve, Rice County’s comp plan says urban reserves are intended restrict development near cities so municipalities can plan and approve development that fits within their urban fabric.

The proposed turbine sites, a half-mile south of the current city boundary, are also just outside one of the city’s designated priority growth areas.

While Buckheit and fellow Councilor Jim Pokorney expressed concerns over the impact the installation of two turbines could have on residential development in that area, local attorney David Hvistendahl, who is representing another company proposing to install six wind turbines across Rice County, says the city’s worries are unjustified.

With the housing market in shambles, Hvistendahl predicts that little to no growth will occur in that area for 10 years or more. The city, he pointed out, is also limited by its annexation agreement with Northfield Township, which restricts Northfield from taking more than 160 acres over five years, with no more than 80 acres a year.

The city could feasibly annex land up to County Road 81 – the furthest southern boundary of the area designated for annexation under the agreement. But even if they did, the proposed turbines would still be more than 2,000 feet south of any residential development – roughly four times the county’s required setback distance, Hvistendahl said.

“I haven’t read anywhere from any economic prognosticators who are predicting growth in the residential real estate sector in the foreseeable future,” Hvistendahl said. “I think they’re bogus arguments, because there is no plan for development there.”

Buckheit concedes that the economy and the annexation agreement may limit residential development in the area near the turbines, but says it’s still smart to review the proposed project’s impact. The city’s comp plan, Buckheit added, puts an emphasis on both green development and residential building in that area – which means the council may have to choose which to prioritize when it comments on the project. Buckheit hopes the city can find a way to accommodate both the turbines and any future home-building in the area.

“I think the answer is obviously somewhere in between,” she said.

— David Henke covers public safety, the arts and business for the Northfield News. Reach him at 645-1100.

Because the proposed turbines are within Northfield’s urban reserve, the city has the opportunity to issue non-binding comments on the project. The Northfield City Council is expected to vote to send the issue to the city’s Planning Commission for review next Tuesday. The Rice County Planning Commission may vote to recommend the two turbines by Dec. 9.

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