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The sound of the rural wind

Rural homeowners in Lancaster County deserve a measure of empathy in their battle for wind turbine regulations that will preserve quiet country living.

The homeowners should have been prepared, and probably were, for some of the traditional features of country life, like slow-moving farm machinery on the road, animal odors and the depredations of hungry deer, raccoons and coyotes.

But the installation of wind turbines hundreds of feet tall going swoosh-thump day and night is something that probably seemed unlikely, especially among the numerous acreage developments near the state’s second-largest city.

Rural residents lost a round last month when the Lincoln-Lancaster Planning Commission rolled back regulations on noise, shadow flicker and other topics.

The Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department had recommended a limit of 40 decibels during the day and 37 at night, as measured at home sites. On a narrow 5-4 vote the commission amended the proposed limits to 50 decibels during the day and 42 at night as measured from buildings. It also loosened other restrictions. The proposed regulations now go to the Lancaster County Board.

The same conflict has played out elsewhere in the nation. There is no apparent consensus on the important topic of noise levels. In Iowa, which generates a higher percentage of its electricity from wind than any other state, regulations are set at the county level, and they appear to be getting more stringent with time, the Cedar Rapids Gazette reported last year.

Delaware County in Iowa, which the Gazette said has a relatively strict set of regulations, set a limit of 55 decibels.

Scott Holmes, manager of the environmental health division of the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department, cited research showing that the nature of wind turbine noise makes it more annoying than noise from aircraft, trains or traffic on roads.

The rotation of the big blades produces a swoosh, thump and silence. The uneven, pulsating sounds repeatedly capture attention and are difficult to ignore, one researcher wrote.

At a public hearing, proponents of wind energy called for looser regulations, fearing that Lancaster County could set a negative example for the rest of the state. They said the original proposal would have effectively blocked wind turbines in the county.

But it’s also true that in many counties with fewer homes there is more open space and potential for fewer conflicts.

It’s also true that often government regulations can spur technological advances. The federal rule on light bulb efficiency, for example, led to advances in light bulb design.

Perhaps noise limits could have the same effect on wind energy. Wired Magazine in May reported on a new style of bladeless wind turbine that is noiseless. If the design can be commercially viable, it presumably would be more compatible with acreage development near cities.

The circumstances call for the Lancaster County Board to give considerable weight to the pleas of rural homeowners as it enacts regulations on wind turbines.