The San Diego Board of Supervisors approved amendments to the county’s Zoning Ordinance for wind energy systems.
The result of efforts to have separate standards for large commercial generation systems and small wind turbines intended for personal home, farm, or business use involved three Board of Supervisors votes May 15. Because the environmental findings applied to both large systems and small systems, Supervisor Dianne Jacob cast the dissenting vote in the 4-1 decision. The vote to approve the ordinance for small systems was 5-0, and a 4-1 vote with Jacob opposed approved the ordinance for large systems.
“This does not approve any wind turbine. All it does is set up a process for us to follow,” said Supervisor Dave Roberts. “Unless we have a plan in place we can’t do anything.”
In February 2009, the county supervisors, following hearings on permit streamlining for testing equipment facilities which determine the feasibility of a wind turbine system, directed county staff to develop a two-tiered ordinance with less restrictive permit requirements for small turbine systems intended for personal and business use rather than for commercial generation and sale.
Small wind energy systems had been defined by the county as one turbine with a blade swept area of up to 220 square feet (corresponding to a diameter of approximately 16 1/2 feet) and had been allowed by right on lots greater than one acre with height limits of 65 feet on lots less than five acres and 80 feet on parcels greater than five acres. The new ordinance defines a small system as one with a rated capacity of not more than 50 kilowatts and which generates energy primarily for use on the same lot on which the wind turbine is located; up to three turbines are now allowed with up to five turbines allowed if all meet the zoning’s height limit and are mounted on an existing permitted (including accessory) structure. The maximum height for a small turbine is now 80 feet.
The new wind energy ordinance eliminated the definition of medium systems, which was a system of one to five turbines with a blade swept area of up to 850 square feet (which for one turbine equates to approximately 33 1/2 feet in diameter). Medium turbines, which also had height limits of 65 feet for lots under five acres and 80 feet for lots greater than five acres, were allowed on lots greater than one acre with an administrative permit.
Large wind turbine systems, which under the old definition meant one or more turbines in which the blade swept area of all turbines exceeded 850 square feet, are now defined as systems with a rated capacity of more than 50 kilowatts. The previous restrictions of 80 feet in height and a blade swept area for an individual turbine of 6,400 square feet were eliminated; the maximum height for a specific turbine will be set through the Major Use Permit process.
Most small systems will now be allowed with a Zoning Verification Permit, which is a ministerial permit issued by the county’s Department of Planning and Development Services (PDS) for the purpose of verifying that a particular use or structure complies with all appropriate Zoning Ordinance regulations.
An Administrative Permit, which requires public review but is granted by the PDS director and only requires a hearing if any party requests one, is required for small turbines in a pre-approved mitigation area within a Multiple Species Conservation Program area, and only one small turbine per legal lot will be allowed in a pre-approved mitigation area.
An Administrative Permit may also be approved for additional turbines beyond the maximum allowed if the total rated capacity does not exceed 50 kilowatts. Biological issues led to prohibitions against guy wires or trellis-style towers and a requirement that all turbines be certified by the California Energy Commission, and all power lines connecting turbines or generators to a structure must be underground.
Turbines or any part may not be within 4,000 feet of a known golden eagle nest site or within 300 feet or five times the turbine height (whichever is greater) from electric transmission towers or lines, watercourses or water bodies, significant roost sites for sensitive bat species, recorded open space easement and designated preserve areas, or riparian vegetation identified on the county’s wetland vegetation map.
The new ordinance includes a setback requirement of 30 feet from a property line (small systems previously had a setback requirement of twice the height while medium systems required a setback of three times the height) and a setback of 10 feet from any structure (the previous ordinance only required compliance with fire setback requirements).
“I can support the small wind turbine ordinance,” Jacob said.
A 10 kilowatt turbine is the recommended standard for an average size home, so a rated capacity of 50 kilowatts can accommodate accessory uses such as wells and agricultural structures.
“That proposed ordinance would give property owners another option to become energy-independent,” Jacob said. “We want to make it easier for people to do that.”
The minimum lot size of five acres for a large system was retained. The minimum setback from all private road, open space, or conservation easements as well as any public roads or property lines is 1.1 times the turbine height. Systems must comply with the maximum rural nighttime noise limit of 45 dBA, although if a “pure tone” such as a whine, screech, or hum exists the limit is 40 dBA. The Major Use Permit conditions require a compliance review every two years.
The Environmental Impact Report (EIR) adopted a statement of overriding considerations regarding California Environmental Quality Act guidelines for 24 significant impacts which cannot be mitigated. “I cannot certify the EIR for the large turbines,” Jacob said. “I cannot certify that the environmental document is compatible and in compliance with CEQA.”
The discretionary and environmental review process for a Major Use Permit analyzes fire risk. An application must comply with county fire regulations and include a fire protection plan, and project-specific mitigation may be required.
“Probably the biggest issue I have is fire,” Jacob said. “There is no way to mitigate the impacts on fire.”
In addition to the fire risks from the turbines themselves, the turbines would limit aerial firefighting capability in the surrounding area. Some turbines reach 450 feet in height while aerial drops of fire retardant are most effective less than 300 feet above the ground. Surrounding power lines could also adversely impact aerial firefighting. “Not one piece of mitigation can reverse the significant and unavoidable impacts of fire,” Jacob said.
Jacob also cited noise impacts. “Distance is the only mitigation measure to address the C-weighted noise,” she said. “There is no concrete data to prove that a specific setback is safe.”
Although county staff did not determine that adverse health impacts from wind turbines exist, county staff was directed to report back in three years with a literature review of the most current research.
“The specific data for either side is inconclusive,” Jacob said. “I’m not comfortable moving forward with something which potentially puts people at major risk.”
The overriding considerations include a state directive to increase California’s renewable energy percentage. “The challenges we’re in is our ordinances haven’t kept up with technology,” Roberts said.
“If you built more nuclear power plants you wouldn’t have to put up with this,” said Supervisor Bill Horn.
The county has no jurisdiction over wind turbines on national forest, state park, or tribal land. “Most of these are not even going to be under the county’s authority,” Roberts said.
Roberts indicated that his approval of the ordinance did not equate to approval of a specific project. “This isn’t approving anything other than a process,” he said.
The county’s Planning Commission had voted 4-2 July 20 to recommend the change to the wind energy ordinance.
On April 13, the Board of Supervisors directed county staff to prepare a draft comprehensive renewable energy plan and return to the board within 120 days with a draft plan containing cost and time estimates as well as options for board consideration. The wind ordinance is expected to be incorporated into that renewable energy plan.