It’s taken a little more than six months, but Madison County has a set of proposed wind energy regulations that are finally ready to be considered by the Madison County board of commissioners.
At a meeting last Thursday, the Madison County Joint Planning Commission conducted a final public hearing and then discussed the input that has been provided at various meetings since April. The end result is an updated set of regulations ready to be considered by the Madison County board of commissioners.
The regulations cover a range of items, including setbacks pertaining to nonparticipating landowners, dwellings, wetlands and public conservation lands.
It also covers decommissioning – the amount of money a company is required to set aside to cover the costs of taking down the turbines when they are no longer useful or operational.
Heather McWhorter, the county’s zoning administrator, will go over all the discussions that took place and put the recommendations from the planning commissioners’ discussions into a draft that will then be considered by the county board.
It wasn’t an easy process getting to this point. Before the new regulations were approved by the joint planning commission, the county received a stack of letters opposed to wind turbines.
McWhorter said 38 identical letters were sent in, each signed by one or two people. The letters were against allowing any wind towers, she said.
Richard Grant, county board chairman, said it is important to remember that no one has to agree to have a turbine on his or her property. It is up to each landowner, he said. The regulations, meanwhile, also are designed to protect the rights of people who do not have them, mostly through the establishment of setbacks.
The original regulations approved by the county in 2007-08 only required turbines to be 1,000 feet from nonparticipating people’s dwellings (houses). After listening to input in recent months, the commissioners ultimately decided to recommend 2,200 feet for setbacks from nonparticipating dwellings.
During the discussions, commissioners said that distance still provides companies with enough flexibility that wind farms are feasible, but also provides protection for neighbors.
They also left decommissioning specifics up to each company and each permit applied for. While each company will be required to have a plan that outlines the cost of removal, they could be allowed to delay saving funds for it until year seven or 10. Most turbines built now are expected to last a minimum of 20 years.
Nearby Pierce County has one of the strictest decommissioning plans around, requiring a line of credit or escrow covering 20 percent of the original cost of the project prior to construction.
Given that many of these projects cost $200 million to $300 million to finance, the 20 percent requirement at the start makes the companies come up with at least an additional $40 million before any revenue is generated.
Another concern relating to wind farms is noise.
The county board, after listening to a range of testimony, did not put in regulations to address sound. The planning commissioners said they believe that by requiring the 2,200 feet setback, there should not be sound issues.
The county also did not put in restrictions on lighting for the towers, leaving it up to the FAA regulations.
Some people testifying said they had read about new lights on top of wind turbines that can be activated by radar from planes. As a result, the turbine lights are only activated when necessary and are dark most of the time.
McWhorter and some county officials attended a recent statewide meeting that included discussions on wind turbines. She said at that meeting, it was stated that the technology on those types of lights was still being developed.
Nevertheless, she said, the FAA has expertise on this type of lighting and would provide better guidance than what the county would have.
Additionally, McWhorter said, if lighting technology continues to advance, the county could address it in specific conditional-use permits for wind farms – if one eventually is put forth.
The regulations have been listed on the Madison County web site and will be updated again before the county board considers them.
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