Limits on noise and shadow flicker would determine how close a turbine could be to a home – rather than set distances – in a draft of proposed commercial wind energy regulations reviewed by the Reno County Planning Commission last week .
The sound and flicker limits proposed are a compromise between more stringent requirements sought by homeowners who have weighed in on the debate and those developers have proposed.
Planning commissioners praised the work of a subcommittee that drafted the regulations, suggesting only several minor changes during a nearly three-hour meeting when the document was reviewed a paragraph at a time.
The board may take up the regulations again for a quick review at its August meeting if there is time, or set a special meeting in August.
The desire is to schedule a public hearing on the proposal by September.
“We spent many hours reviewing the comments and the documents received,” said Reno County Planner Mark Vonachen, who served on the subcommittee with Public Works Director Don Brittain and Planning Commission Chair Russ Goertzen.
“We reviewed ordinances country-wide,” he said. “Some states govern the placement of turbines. Some give guidelines and samples. Some, like ours, leave it to local authority.”
Vonachen said the draft is not based on a template from any other state or county because they wanted something specific to fit Reno County.
“Our major goal was to provide safeguards to the public and guidance to developers, but most of all flexibility,” he said. “As you can see, it was a challenging task to come up with a set of regulations that address public interests but also developer interests. The only guarantee we found is there is no perfect set of regulations to satisfy anyone.”
The 15-page proposal does include a few specific minimum “setback” distances – from property lines, registered airports, and state parks.
In the case of property lines and homes, its the height of the turbine, as measured by its maximum blade tip height, plus 50 feet, which matches the regulation used in Marion County.
That’s in sharp contrast to the proposed setback in a plan submitted to the planning board by Reno County Citizens for Qualify of Life (RCCQL), a group formed by landowners who opposed the Pretty Prairie Wind project.
The RCCQL sought a minimum setback of 10 ½ times the height of the turbine for non-participating landowner.
“We thought long and hard on that,” Vonachen said. “There was a lot of debate. It came down to looking at what was appropriate, but still gave the possibility of having a turbine on, say, a 40-acre piece of land. If you create a setback greater than that, you get a situation where a 40-acre parcel is not able to have a turbine.”
The minimum setback from a house, which can’t be waived, Goertzen said, was to “protect a homeowner from themselves” since some might be tempted to waive even that minimum setback to secure a turbine on their land.
“The three things we really took deep dives on and took a lot of time with was private airstrips, noise and shadow flicker,” Goertzen said. “Those are the three things, if you ranked them that were numbers three, one and two in the comments we had. We’re still talking setbacks, but not a defined specific amount.”
The committee set the maximum sound level at 40 decibels, “based on an annual average sound pressure,” measured at the wall of a structure nearest the turbine for both participating and non-participating homes.
Proponents of stricter regulations proposed an annualized 35 decibels, with noise levels never exceeding 45 dB, while NextEra Energy in its application proposed 45 dBA.
Vonachen noted the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) recommended 40 decibels as the “ideal design goal, with 45 decibels as an appropriate regulatory limit.”
“We chose to go with 40,” he said, and a participating landowner can waive this limit.
Planning Commissioner Steven Seltzer noted that in many sample regulations submitted to the board, they included a maximum noise level as well as an annual average, but Brittain said they settled on a single number to keep it simple.
The draft includes a paragraph suggesting the developer “consider using wind turbine blades that are equipped with Low Noise Trailing Edge (LNTE) technology and blade serration… to assist in minimizing noise generation.”
Shadow flicker is moving shadows created by turbine blades as they spin and pass between a property and the sun. They are only produced when the sun is at a certain location in relation to the turbine, at certain times of the year.
The maximum shadow flicker in the proposed policy is set at 20 hours per year.
Again, the subcommittee looked at both daily and annual maximums and settled on just an annual number.
“They (NARUC) said no more than 30 hours a year or 30 minutes a day,” Vonanchen said. “We lowered it to 20 hours, which exceeded what NARUC recommended.”
The RCCQL plan allowed no shadow flicker, requiring turbines that couldn’t be set back far enough to prevent it be shut down when flicker would occur.
In the planning proposal, the distance a turbine must be away from a home to meet the maximum levels for both noise and shadow flicker determine the setback for that specific turbine.
“They (RCCQL) wanted a hard setback of so many feet,” Brittain said. “Two-thousand feet may fix the noise and it may not. With this, there is no hardcore setback. To comply with the maximum, it may take a 3,000-foot setback or 1,700 feet. It’s whatever it takes. You get away from the guesswork.”
A landowner can waive the minimum requirements for both sound and shadow flicker.
While the regulations require sound, shadow flicker, and ice throw studies be done by an “independent third-party,” the draft doesn’t require that the developer secure testing after installation or annually thereafter to ensure limits are met, as was proposed by homeowners.
Seltzer suggested the policy include “verbiage for what’s required to mitigate it by the turbine company” if a turbine is found to violate the minimums.
Planning Commissioner Lisa French proposed those be part of a “complaint resolution” process included in the code for addressing violations, which she also suggested by renamed “dispute resolution.”
Vonachen, however, said a development agreement written by the county commission could spell out measures to be taken to mitigate those problems.
Airstrips and other limits
Goertzen, who said he tasked with researching airports, found “Kansas loves aviation,” noting private airstrips dot the county.
“There could be one on any quarter (acre of land) and we don’t know it,” he said.
So they settled on regulating around only those airstrips which are registered with the state or Federal Aviation Administration.
The regulations they found recommended a 20-to-1 setback on runway approaches and 7-to-1 on the sides of the runway.
“We felt we needed to increase that more,” Goertzen said, so the regulation proposes 25-to-1 for approaches and 10-to-1 for sides.
That equates to 25 feet of setback for every foot of the tower, so a 500-foot tower would require 12,500 feet from the end of the runway and 5,000 feet from its sides.
The owner of an airstrip may grant a waiver.
Besides property lines and airports, other setbacks specified in the document include a minimum of 3 miles from state park properties and one mile from “corporate city limits.”
The city setback is to allow the growth of the municipal boundaries, while the park regulation is to protect tourism and wildlife.
Some changes suggested during Thursday’s meeting included adding raptors and other “sensitive species” to the list of wildlife within the proposed wind farm footprint developers would have to contract to be studied.
Some suggested consolidating the list of studies outlined at several places in the document to one chapter or location, and that a required annual study of bird kills be made publicly available.
Things members suggested eliminating included: a stipulation that turbines could have no more than three blades; that a wind purchase agreement is signed before the permit application is filed; and that tower foundations be removed to a depth of five feet if the wind farm is decommissioned.
There was a consensus on changing the blade limit, listing the bird kill study as part of the development agreement, and requiring only a four-foot depth be removed.
Vonachen proposed the five-foot depth, noting he didn’t think four-feet, which is standard, was deep enough. The board noted the landowner could negotiate a greater depth.
On the power purchase agreement issue, Buchanan argued it was unnecessary since the company is taking the financial risk building the wind farm and wouldn’t proceed if it couldn’t sell the power
“I don’t think that’s our business,” Buchanan said. “They’re going to spend a lot of money to get through the process.
Vonachen contended the guarantee was needed before the county did all the work related to the permit application, and that it was a standard requirement for wind development. French agreed it was common.
Member Harlan Macklin proposed having the county counselor look at it, to see if there is a legal reason it should be included and, if not, then striking the requirement.
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