WARM SPRINGS – An ordinance to govern small, residential-type wind energy facilities in Bath County is not complete, but is closer to consideration by the board of supervisors.
The Bath County Planning Commission held a work session with supervisors Monday to refine the proposed ordinance and get some public input, though only one supervisor, chairman Richard Byrd, was able to attend.
Planning commission chairman Mike Grist said discussion had been held on some provisions of the proposal, which is why planners decided to have the work session. Byrd said supervisors have had the original draft for some time and had not acted on it.
“We need to get an ordinance on the books to protect the people of the county as a whole. It must be done prior to something happening,” Byrd said. “Once we hear comments, we can add it to our February agenda and consider setting a public hearing. We could also send it back to the planning commission.”
The ordinance as drafted would allow small wind energy facilities in all zoning districts with a conditional use permit. Jay Trinca of Bacova said he believed such facilities should not be allowed in residential areas.
“I believe a windmill with a 65-foot tower (allowable on lots less than five acres in the proposal) is a piece of industrial equipment. It will have blades, batteries and power. This would be fine for a farm, and I have no problem with it in M-1 areas,” Trinca said. “In B-2, maybe, and in B-1 maybe with a variance. I don’t want to see 65-foot towers up in one of these historical little villages. That would be counter to tourism. I think it’s not wise to do that.”
Trinca suggested providing “footprint” maps of the county with designated areas where small wind facilities could be used.
Planning commission member Ronnie Dunnagan said technology is improving, and such facilities will likely be much smaller in the future. “We need to put something in there to help our children when they grow up. I understand we must protect ourselves, but it works both ways,” Dunnagan said.
Grist said applicants would still have to obtain a conditional use permit, which would give planners the authority to examine each request. “If someone wanted to put a 65-foot tower in an area where there was hardly any wind, I wouldn’t vote for it,” he said.
Planner Lynn Ellen Black favored not allowing the systems in residential areas, even with the potential for new technology.
County planning director Sherry Ryder said she believed people in residential areas should be given the opportunity to have wind towers to help with their electric bills.
Byrd suggested excluding small wind facilities on towers from residential districts but including a provision to allow smaller facilities as technology improves. The consensus of the planning commission was to include Byrd’s suggestion in the ordinance.
A checklist for applicants, Grist said, would make sure applicants could justify their need for a tower, and the potential effectiveness of a system, before public hearings were held on applications. It was agreed a checklist would be made part of the application process. “We want them to do their homework before they come here,” he said.
The proposal contained the term “wind turbine” in several places, referring to the small wind systems, and it was agreed to change that to “wind energy system,” since the turbine is technically the blades, generator and tail. This change was made in order to close a possible loophole regarding the height of such systems.
The ordinance draft calls for minimum setbacks of 100 feet for a 65-foot tower, 200 feet for an 80-foot tower and 250 feet for a 100-foot tower. County administrator Bonnie Johnson suggested using a percentage or ratio to determine setbacks. Other areas, she said, have used 150 percent of the tower height.
Using 150 percent of tower height would require setbacks of 97.5 feet for a 65-foot tower, 120 feet for an 80-foot tower and 150 feet for a 100-foot tower. “What we’re saying in reality is, if the thing fell, it’s going to stay on your property,” Grist said.
Planners would be able to look at the homes surrounding a proposed facility. “That’s why as a planning commission, we decided months ago the best way to handle this was with a CUP,” Grist said.
Planners agreed the ratio should be included. The 65-, 80- and 100-foot setbacks will be kept as minimums but the ratio will be used first if an application is made.
A one-half acre minimum lot size is included in the draft ordinance, and that will remain. Grist noted lot sizes would be covered in the ratio dealing with tower height and through the conditional use permit process.
The visual impact of small wind systems on historical and cultural properties as well as ridgelines and vistas has also been frequently discussed. Grist used the example of the Ingalls Overlook on Warm Springs Mountain. “Do we want to regulate what you see from that vista? And, where do we set the ridgeline?” he asked.
“We need to decide where the ridgelines are first,” planner Mary Lynn Riner suggested.
Claudia Trinca of Bacova proposed restricting such facilities from each side of U.S. 220 throughout the county. The mountains along that route, she said, are the “essence of the county.”
Johnson said the county attorney could help work on language that would protect ridgelines and vistas. She said Tazewell County had put a provision in its comprehensive plan protecting areas that are special to its economy and tourism.
Grist agreed working with the attorney was needed. “Cell phone towers, power lines, wind turbines, houses, it keeps coming up forever and ever. I think it needs to be found out what we can legally do,” he said. “Tourism is 65 percent of our work force. We need to protect what we have.”
Frank Johnson of Healing Springs commented on the allowable noise regulation in the proposal. The draft ordinance called for allowing 60 decibels at the property line. Johnson noted Rockingham uses 65 and other areas have used 55. Johnson suggested using 55 decibels, and the planners agreed that change would be made.
“We want to make what’s right for the people of this county,” Grist said. “We want people to have their say.”
At the meeting, Grist was re-elected as chairman and Dunnagan was chosen as vice chair. The planners scheduled a public hearing on the county capital improvement requests for their Feb. 28 meeting.
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