The Albany County Planning and Zoning Commission reviewed the county’s commercial wind energy siting regulations during a work session Thursday, with the intention of developing a set of changes to recommend to the Board of Commissioners.
Both bodies have mulled updating the county’s regulations in recent months as a proactive measure in advance of future wind development. The topic rose to the surface last winter when Texas-based renewable energy company ConnectGen announced plans to build a 504-megawatt wind farm south of Laramie near Tie Siding.
The potential Rail Tie Wind Project could include 85-150 turbines on 26,000 acres of state and private land on both sides of U.S. Highway 287. A draft Environmental Impact Statement is expected by the end of the year, while state and county permitting has yet to get underway.
In February, the planning commission declined to pass a moratorium on wind energy development in order to update its regulations, which were last amended in 2009. Later in the spring, a group of 60 landowners and residents retained a lawyer and presented their own suggested changes, which some on the commission regarded as having the potential to stifle all wind development in the county.
In September, a group called Albany County for Smart Energy Development turned in a petition with more than 1,200 signatures to the Board of Commissioners, asking them to review and amend existing regulations.
During Thursday’s meeting, the planning commission reviewed regulations regarding a variety of topics and suggested a number of revisions. Commission chairman Shaun Moore said Albany County has the benefit of learning from its neighbors to the east and west and their large-scale wind development projects.
“What we need to focus on is how can we take what we have, and how can we improve them, in such a way that it’s realistic that the Board of County Commissioners would adopt them,” he said.
Commission member John Spiegelberg said he was worried that too many rules would drive the industry into the ground.
“I don’t want to see an industry stifled and destroyed by hyper-regulation,” he said.
Commission member David Cunningham said the county needs to protect itself from being taken advantage of.
“If you don’t regulate an industry, it will find ways to squeeze through holes that you have no idea even exist,” he said.
Regarding setbacks, current regulations require towers to be set back either a quarter-mile or five times the tower height – whichever is greater – from the nearest residential dwelling or subdivision. With the newest turbines approaching 700 feet tall at the top of a vertical blade, that’s a setback of almost three-quarters of a mile.
Setbacks for roads, property lines and other features are closer and designed to protect public safety. Moore said setbacks should, at the very least, keep people safe from nearby turbines.
“As long as the public is safe on a county road, then I’m fine with what these setbacks are,” he said.
County regulations require that a wind development not produce more than 55 decibels of sound at the edge of the property line where the project is located. Planning director David Gertsch pointed out that there’s no requirement except the word of the developer that the noise regulation is being met. Commission members suggested requiring the developer to submit a noise study to demonstrate that a development meets the standard.
Light pollution is a common complaint lodged against wind developments, as the Federal Aviation Administration requires lighting on structures such as turbines in order to protect aircraft at night.
However, technology now exists that allows radar to survey the airspace and turn on turbine lights only when an aircraft is within a certain distance. Commission members were in favor of requiring developments to employ such technology.
The planning commission was also in favor of requiring developers to maintain liability insurance for at least $5 million in aggregate, up from $1 million currently. They supported adding Albany County as a beneficiary to bonds held by the state to cover reclamation expenses.
They also supported requiring developers to enlist a Wyoming-registered professional engineer or architect to routinely inspect projects for compliance.
“When someone is looking over your shoulder, you don’t cut corners,” Cunningham said.
The planning commission is set to consider a revised version of the regulations during its next meeting, which is scheduled for 2 p.m. Nov. 10, at which time there will also be a public hearing.