In May, small scale renewable energy in Winona County took a blow when a private wind turbine was removed from the rural skyline in Fremont Township following the denial of a permit for property owner Jim Jarvis. But since, the winds of Winona County government may have shifted, after the Planning Commission unanimously recommended that Jarvis be allowed to re-erect the structure, recommending a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) be granted.
The final say will come from the Winona County Board during an upcoming meeting. But the feeling this time around is a more hopeful one, with a hearty recommendation from the county Planning Department, newly headed by County Administrator Duane Hebert following the resignation of former Planning Director Brian Bender.
It’s another story of complex zoning interpretation, one that toppled that Fremont Township tower just months ago. The issue stems from a lack of regulations for renewable energy in Winona County. The county did have a wind energy ordinance that addressed how wind turbines should be regulated, but it was allowed to expire in 2008.
Jarvis, who owns a renewable energy business in Winona County, had assisted landowners in the past with similar small wind turbines. County Planning staff then deemed those turbines “agricultural structures” that didn’t require any permits and government oversight. So when Jarvis put up his own, similar wind turbine, he assumed he didn’t need a permit, either.
County Planning staff took aim at Jarvis’ turbine shortly thereafter, demanding that he apply for a variance permit to break rules for the height of a nonfarm structure. Typically a rule meant for homes and garages and other nonfarm buildings, the county had never required such a permit for a wind turbine before. The Board of Adjustments (BOA) denied the variance, and Jarvis’ only recourse was to tear down the wind energy structure, or take the county to court. So in May, he rented a crane and took the turbine to the ground.
Since then, another wind energy project has faced yet another permitting process. The county’s Planning Commission and County Board approved a CUP for a Gundersen Lutheran wind turbine project near St. Charles, treating the structures as commercial towers, rather than nonfarm structures.
Where a variance is permission to break a rule, a CUP is for a land use that is considered permitted, but needs a permit with a list of conditions. State standards for granting a variance are very rigid, and the BOA is a quasi-judicial arm of the county. Compared to a variance, which county staff have described in the past as “set up for denial,” a CUP is more flexible.
On Thursday night during the Planning Commission’s meeting, Hebert said that the CUP process was the way the turbine should have been treated before. In a recent interview, Hebert said he didn’t know why former Planning Director Bender forced Jarvis into the more difficult variance process.
Planning Commission members viewed video footage of the site, including video taken for the variance hearing earlier in the year when the turbine was still standing. During the earlier video, Planning Department staff took measurements for setbacks for 1.1 times the height of the 134 foot tower, as well as 1.5 times the height of the tower, showing that it would, if it fell in the least likely and most damaging way, cross the rural Fremont Store Road. County staff in the video claimed that the 1.5 times the height of the tower setback was “recommended for the health, safety and welfare” of the community.
But after viewing that footage Thursday, Hebert warned the Planning Commission that there were not county rules on the books that required a setback of 1.5 or 1.1 times the height of the tower. “We really don’t have an ordinance that talks about these kinds of turbines,” said Hebert. He noted that there were plenty of other turbines and towers throughout Winona County in a similar situation. There is a 300-plus foot commercial tower a half-mile up the road from Jarvis’ property that would both cross the roadway, and knock out power lines, if it failed. And, Winona County owns several communication towers that, if failed, would cross roadways, including one in the city of Winona along Shives Road.
Hebert told Planning Commission members that the history of Jarvis’ turbine and the variance he was denied could provide helpful background information, but that commissioners must view the new CUP application on its own. He also said that he had learned such a tower is not likely to fall straight down, in the unlikely event it should fail. Rather, when towers fail, they normally crumple near the top, meaning that even if the turbine fell for some reason, it would not likely cross the roadway.
Because Jarvis owns a renewable energy business and is an industry expert, and because he was trained by the manufacturers of his turbine model, Hebert suggested that one of the conditions placed on the CUP be that a professional provide an annual inspection of the tower to ensure its safety. This, said Hebert, was something that Jarvis could do himself because of his background, although such a condition could be a financial hardship if placed on someone else. Hebert said that he hoped the county would have a wind energy ordinance in place by the time the next wind turbine applicant seeks a permit.
Jarvis said that his model turbine is engineered to withstand up to 100 mph winds, and that they are known as “tornado tough,” with video footage of similar turbines that withstand storms that destroy nearby homes. He also said that several components of his turbine, such as the quality of concrete and strength of guy-wires, exceed the minimum specifications for the turbine.
Planning Commission member Bob Peterson, who is also a member of the BOA who denied the previous variance request, said that he learned from that process. “We did satisfy ourselves, from a purely safety point of view,” he said.
The CUP was recommended for approval unanimously. The County Board will vote on whether to grant it at an upcoming meeting.
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