After years of regulatory limbo that toppled one wind energy project, Winona County has a set of rules for renewable energy that most seem to agree on.
The Winona County Board made some final changes to a new Chapter 12 for the zoning ordinance on Tuesday night, removing some unclear regulations that wind energy advocates said would be hard to meet. The chapter was approved with the removal of one section that County Attorney Karin Sonneman said she wanted to review.
Many of the final changes made had been suggested by Jim Jarvis for more than a year, as staff and the Planning Commission reviewed the proposed rules. Jarvis, who owns a business specializing in renewable energy systems, has seen the worst in Winona County wind regulations, after being forced to remove his own small wind turbine during a time when there were no specific rules regulating wind energy at all.
The county had an interim, or temporary, wind energy ordinance on the books back in 2007, but it expired and was never renewed by county leaders. In the years that followed, many small turbines were erected in the hills and valleys of Winona County, but were deemed “agricultural structures,” and faced no permitting requirements.
But when Jarvis, who is not a farmer, installed his own small turbine, planning department staff demanded an after-the-fact variance for violating height limits of 35 feet, a rule most often applied to non-farm structures like houses and garages. He failed to get the permit, and Fremont Township lost a little green dot on its skyline.
Since that controversy, Jarvis has worked closely with the county on several draft renewable energy regulations, and was given permits necessary to re-erect his wind turbine. On Tuesday, many of his last requested changes to the final draft were adopted by the County Board.
Language was removed that would have required new wind energy projects to “minimize or mitigate interference with electromagnetic communications, such as radio, telephone, microwaves, or television signals….” Commissioners learned that it could be difficult to quantify how an applicant might mitigate such interference, or measure it. Instead, similar language was left only for systems larger than 100 kW required to obtain a Conditional Use Permit (CUP). If a problem with such interference is predicted for larger projects, officials may ask that a modeling study be conducted that can show where larger towers can be located to stay away from major communication corridors.
The board also voted to clarify language requiring credit, bond or cash up front for future decommissioning costs for wind turbines larger than 100 kW. Former language had been unclear, and seemed to require a line of credit or cash in the amount of 105 percent of the entire project cost. Because large wind turbines contain large amounts of steel, the scrap value can often cover most or all of the cost to remove a tower. Commissioners changed the language to clearly indicate only 105 percent of the projected decommissioning costs be required to apply for a permit.
Some unclear language about what color wind turbines can be was removed, with the language deemed too subjective for smaller turbines that don’t need to go through permitting processes. Language for larger turbines requiring a CUP was changed to “The proposed Wind Energy Convergence (WEC) system shall consider visual impacts.”
For more than a year, the draft regulations asked that applicants check in with an “Environmental Quality Board” on any wind turbine project. But by the final hearing on Tuesday, planning staff said that state agency does not review wind turbine applications any longer, and now that work is done by the Department of Commerce and the Minnesota Department of Transportation aeronautics division.
Jarvis told commissioners he felt this change in state regulations signaled that the reference did not belong in the ordinance. With state, federal, and agency requirements in flux, the county would have to continually amend its own ordinance if it includes such references, he said.
County Attorney Sonneman seemed to agree, adding that she had found other state and federal regulations for large wind turbines that were not referenced in the draft at all. State agencies and regulations change, and Sonneman said she didn’t want the county to be on the line if a large turbine project were approved, and new, important state or federal regulations weren’t listed. Is it the ordinance’s role to tell applicants all government regulations they need to fulfill, she asked?
The board decided to remove references to specific outside regulations for wind turbines, adding a more general statement about projects needing to meet all other applicable federal and state rules and permitting requirements.
A closer look at the rest of the approved zoning ordinance, however, finds that there are dozens of specific references to state statutes, state rules, state agency requirements and federal rules throughout. Sonneman was sworn into office just weeks following the County Board vote to approve the zoning ordinance in its entirety late last year, and did not have the chance to provide formal recommendations prior to that vote. County Board member Marcia Ward did ask that the ordinance vote wait until Sonneman had the chance to review it and provide a legal opinion, but she did not receive enough support from the rest of the board to wait.
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