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New ordinance bans windmills on most lots

Most Elko County residents won’t need to worry about their neighbor installing a loud, unsightly wind turbine next door, thanks to a new ordinance that broadly interprets a state law regulating the alternative energy devices.

The battle between green-energy advocates and their opponents has been going on at the state level for the past few years. In 2009, a Democrat-sponsored bill greatly limited the factors local governments could take into account in crafting regulations for solar and wind generators. Windmill restrictions could only be based on the height, noise or safety of a system.

Last year, a Republican-sponsored bill effectively gutted the earlier effort by adding “appearance” and “location” to the list of considerations.

Here at the local level, county officials at first crafted a liberal ordinance allowing windmills up to 135 feet tall on one-acre lots. That was reduced to shorter than 66 feet on two-acre lots. (The average height recommended by the American Wind Energy Association is 80 feet).

Then, after neighbors objected to the installation of a 65-foot wind turbine on a two-acre lot on the outskirts of Elko, commissioners decided to beef up the law even more.

The county is apparently relying on the “location” element of the state law in restricting windmills to certain lot sizes. Their latest action, which should go into effect in another month or so, sets a 2.5-acre minimum lot size. That effectively bans windmills on most lots in Spring Creek and outlying Elko subdivisions.

By giving cities and counties the ability to restrict the location of wind turbines, state lawmakers have paved a path to broad prohibition of these devices on typical residential lots.

It’s difficult to find a balance between private property rights and protecting the right of neighbors to enjoy their own property. Up until now the windmill issue has been resolved on a case-by-case basis, often involving litigation, such as a battle about a year ago in Reno that was similar to Elko’s.

Setting a standard at the city or county level makes lawsuits over alternative energy devices much less likely. It also limits the ability of homeowners to take energy generation into their own hands, leaving that to the big utility companies and their massive wind farms.

As far as Elko-area homeowners are concerned, county commissioners seem to have struck a balance that will work for now. If it doesn’t, they can always change the ordinance again.

Members of the Elko Daily Free Press editorial board are John Pfeifer, Jeffry Mullins and Marianne Kobak McKown.