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Portland board OKs ‘conservative’ rules for urban turbines

PORTLAND – At the center of Peaks Island, in Trott-Littlejohn Park, a 100-foot meteorological tower rises high above lush evergreen trees.

On the tower are two anemometers, which use spinning metal cups to measure wind speeds on the 2-mile-long island.

Using a grant from Efficiency Maine, a group of environmentally conscious residents helped install the anemometers last August, to see if wind turbines would make economic sense at this popular summer destination. Every month, the University of Maine collects the information and analyzes it.

Although the group has no plan to install turbines, the project prompted Portland officials to think about how they will regulate turbines in the future.

This week, after months of discussion, the Portland Planning Board unanimously approved a 16-page ordinance to regulate turbines installed by residents, businesses or the city. The City Council will likely discuss the proposed ordinance next week.

As written, the measure would prohibit turbines in the city’s historic landscape districts and historic cemeteries, including Deering Oaks, Evergreen Cemetery, the Eastern Promenade, the Western Promenade and Back Cove.

It would allow turbines on residential and commercial properties if they meet certain height, sound and setback restrictions and don’t “substantially obstruct public views.”

Jean Fraser, the city planner who put the ordinance together, called it “conservative” compared with turbine regulations in other cities.

“This ordinance is trying to find a balance between those people who don’t want any residential wind turbines and those who do,” Fraser said. “It’s a little conservative, to ensure (the turbines) don’t cause an undue burden.”

The city’s first turbine will likely be erected in August. DiMillo’s, the popular restaurant and marina on Commercial Street, will install a 35-foot-tall turbine near the restaurant’s entrance, said Steve DiMillo Sr., the company’s owner.

The turbine will help DiMillo’s cover its gift shop’s electricity costs. It’s also part of a “green” movement by the company, which is considering solar panels to provide the restaurant with hot water, DiMillo said.

Although some people complain about the aesthetics of wind turbines, DiMillo doesn’t think his will detract from the waterfront. “There are already light poles that stick up in that area,” he said, “so it’s pretty unobtrusive.”

The new ordinance would allow turbines as tall as 160 feet in some recreational and open-space areas. That’s a common height for many 100-kilowatt turbines, city officials said.

The ordinance would prohibit systems taller than 45 feet in residential areas and 85 feet in commercial areas. In some places, the allowable heights would be lower.

In terms of sound, residential turbines would have to stay under 50 decibels, which is equivalent to many refrigerators, officials said. After 9 p.m., the maximum allowable sound would be 45 decibels.

There also would be many setback restrictions. Any roof-mounted system would have to be separated from the property lines by at least four times the height of the turbine. That means a 30-foot rooftop turbine would have to be at least 120 feet from the property lines.

Robert Hains of Portland said the restrictions are so great that few turbines will go up. Most people don’t have enough land to meet the setback requirements, said Hains, who also called the sound restrictions too tight.

“We all sleep through (the sound of) refrigerators,” Hains said. “Some of this just doesn’t make any sense.”

Even if the City Council adopts the ordinance, any wind power project – residential or otherwise – could face significant resistance. In 2009, Portland’s East End Elementary School won a state grant to put up an anemometer, before public backlash helped derail the project.

Neighbors of the school cited safety and health concerns – including possible headaches and nausea caused by the oft-disputed “wind turbine syndrome” – as reasons to oppose the project.

Fraser, the city planner, called the proposed ordinance “an experiment” and said the city could make changes after the first few turbines go up and officials get public feedback. The Planning Board added a provision that it must re-examine the regulations by January 2017.

“Technology is changing so fast,” Fraser said. “So I think it’s understood we will be revisiting this in the near future.”