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Delaware County Supervisors: wind tower variance denied

The enormous wind turbines that make up the Elk Wind Farm near Greeley have been a symbol of Delaware County’s participation in Iowa’s large and growing wind energy industry since 2011. According to Roger Zearley, founder of Cedar Rapids-based FreeWind LLC, that wind-friendly reputation may not extend to the county’s residents who wish to harness wind for non-commercial power generation – at least if its current ordinance governing non-commercial wind towers remains unaltered.

At its regularly scheduled meeting Dec. 10, the Delaware County board of supervisors denied a variance request by Zearley that would have allowed his company to erect a 140-foot-tall wind tower on the farm of Charlie Ward, near Ryan – the first non-commercial wind tower in the county.

Zearley had requested variances for the tower height and noise generated by the turbine. Currently, County Ordinance #32, which governs commercial and non-commercial wind energy conversion systems, allows for non-commercial towers no taller than 100 feet and with a decibel level no greater than 50 dBA as measured at the nearest residence. The 140-foot tower that Zearley would like to construct on the Ward property has a decibel level of 54 dBA at its source, though he said it would be much lower when measured at the nearest residence.

Supervisors Jerry Ries and Jeff Madlom both said they were less concerned with the tower height and decibel level than with the planned tower’s proximity to other structures, particularly Ward’s residence.

“I wasn’t quite as concerned about the difference between 100 and 140 (feet) as I am about the distance to the residence,” supervisor Jeff Madlom said. Supervisor Jerry Ries agreed, adding that the tower’s proximity posed a liability risk that he was unwilling to accept.

Zearley contended that the ordinance section regarding non-commercial wind towers does not require a setback from adjacent structures.

“I don’t think I have a turbine up anywhere that isn’t next to a building,” said Zearley. “The ordinance doesn’t say anything about adjacent buildings and that’s what’s confusing me.”

Ries admitted that the ordinance does not explicitly state a required setback distance from adjacent buildings.

“We didn’t have anything on (the ordinance) about buildings, but on the same token, you do have your fall distance and you’re way short of that,” he said.

Ordinance #32 does define a “Fall Zone” as the area around the base of a guyed or self-supported tower where the tower would collapse in the event of a structural failure. The fall zone includes the total height of the structure plus 10 percent, the ordinance states. Aside from defining “fall zone,” however, the ordinance does not explicitly place restrictions on a tower’s placement based on its fall zone.

Madlom admitted that the ordinance could be more explicit.

“We understand it’s a little vague in a couple areas, there’s no doubt” Madlom told the Commercial on the following morning. “But we’re trying to address that and we’re working with (Zearley) to do that.”

Zearley told the board that, without changes to the ordinance, he would likely be unable to conduct business in the county.

“(A setback from adjacent buildings greater than the fall zone) is just going to make it very difficult to do any wind turbine, even at 100 feet, in Delaware County,” said Zearley. “I just personally think that’s unfair to the landowner because what we’re trying to do is alleviate them from part of their electric bill.”

Board Chairperson Shirley Helmrichs resisted Zearley’s claim.

“We’re all for bringing new energy sources in; however, we do ask for a little respect,” she told Zearley. “When we’ve taken the time to put together an ordinance, had two complete readings with it, and you’re asking for three complete variances – height, decibels, setback – that’s quite a bit of variation from an ordinance that we do have in place.”

Before denying the variance, Madlom and Ries suggested that Zearley talk to Ward about moving the wind tower farther north, away from his residence.

The move would place the tower nearer a property line that, according to property line setback restrictions within the ordinance, would not normally be allowed; however, since Ward also owns the adjacent property, Ries and Madlom said the rule could be overlooked.