Town votes in Riga, Michigan, and Rumford, Maine have both adopted wind farm siting standards that are somewhat more cautionary than most. Riga township voted 440-236 to uphold an ordinance that establishes setbacks of 4x turbine height (1200 or so feet) from non-participating property lines, and sets a noise limit of 40dB at night and 45dB during the day. The distance setback shouldn’t be an issue for developers (1200-1500 foot setbacks are typical of many wind farms), though the night time noise limit could make it difficult to site turbines closer than a third to half mile from homes. It wasn’t clear from initial press reports whether the Riga ordinance provides an option for neighbors to sign waivers allowing closer siting or higher noise levels.
Meanwhile, the third time was the charm in Rumford, where two previous proposals went down to defeat, one for being too stringent (including setbacks of a mile), and the next for not protective enough (the sticking point likely being a 45dB night time noise limit). The current proposal garnered overwhelming support, winning by a margin of 1137-465, and includes a 40dB night/50dB day noise limit, along with a 4000-foot setback from non-participating neighbor property lines. Neighbors can, however, sign a Mitigation Waiver agreement to allow closer siting.
Conversely, in New Hampshire, the town of Antrim rejected a proposed ordinance that would have set a 40dB night noise standard (or 5dB over ambient, whichever is less) and setbacks of 6x turbine height from non-participating homes (likely to amount to something over 1800 feet); the proposed wind farm nearby will be governed by state standards.
The Rumford approach represents a reasonable and workable middle ground on wind farm siting. At 4000 feet, turbines will sometimes be heard, but the most disruptive sound impacts should be avoided. It’s very uncommon to hear of severe noise impacts beyond 3000-3500 feet, so the 4000-foot setback is at a potential sweet spot that will likely protect quality of life for those who especially value the current rural soundscape. (It should be noted that 40dB turbine sound is still likely to be much louder than rural night time ambient noise levels of 20-30dB below the hills, so turbines will be clearly audible on some nights; it will probably be rare for turbine sound to reach 40dB at 4000 feet, but it can sometimes happen.) When combined with easy-to-obtain Mitigation Waivers, this approach should leave plenty of freedom for wind developers to build closer to homeowners who are less concerned about hearing turbines occasionally or even regularly (about half the population is very noise tolerant). The most cautionary acousticians are recommending noise limits of 30-35dB and setbacks of a mile or more, standards that would protect all residents from hearing turbines at more than barely audible levels; Rumford rejected this approach in Round 1, preferring to leave the door at least a bit more open to developers while assuring that non-participating neighbors will be minimally impacted. It would be great to see this project move forward, so we could get a real-world indication of how well these middle-ground standards work for both neighbors and wind developers.
While the 4000-foot setback may seem extreme to those used to working with setbacks of not much over 1000 feet, this sort of approach, if widely adopted, holds much promise as a more positive approach to wind farm development. By acknowledging that some people (including a large proportion of residents in many rural communities that are not primarily composed of working farms and ranches) do not want their local soundscapes changed by large-scale development, especially at night, the dynamic in communities would be radically changed. Without the sense of new noise and nearby tall towers being imposed on them, the widespread resistance now facing most project would largely dissipate. Without the fear of noise, property value, or health impacts rippling through the community, it’s likely that many waivers could be obtained from willing neighbors, while still protecting the quality of life of others who don’t want to hear turbines on a regular basis. Many residents, especially in farming and ranching communities, will readily sign waivers allowing for closer siting; while noise annoyances are extreme for some (leading to abandonment of homes by especially noise-sensitive residents), for many others, these same noise levels are easily accepted. In most cases, small annual payments more than make up for any annoyance or concern about slight decreases in property values. By acknowledging that wind farms do create a change in the nearby soundscape, and establishing programs to accommodate and compensate for this small, localized externality of wind energy generation, wind developers would face a much less contentious path forward into new communities.
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