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Woodbury Adopts Alternative Energy Ordinance

November 11, 2009

In an increasingly popular move among local governments, Woodbury adopted a citywide alternative energy ordinance governing wind turbines, solar panels, and geothermal heating and cooling systems last month. These ordinances, often created in response to an increase in building permit requests for alternative energy generators, create guidelines for where such generators can be applied and address structural and aesthetic concerns.

The ordinance was drafted by the Woodbury City Counsel following a request from School District 833 last year to include a wind turbine in the building plans for the new East Ridge High School. The district had hoped for the turbine to provide 30 to 50 percent of the school’s energy, according to an article in the Star Tribune. But news of the city’s immanent approval of the ordinance, which doesn’t allow for turbines as large as the one East Ridge officials had in mind, spurred the school district to scale back its wind energy aspirations last month.

Alternative energy ordinances, particularly those aimed at regulating wind turbines, can be both a blessing and a curse for clean energy projects. On the one hand, having clearly stated expectations in regard to permitting makes the planning phase much easier for developers. They know what to expect, and can bypass the haggling which often characterizes dealings with local zoning commissions. But there is a significant caveat. Overly restrictive guidelines can impede development, as in the case of the District 833 turbine.

The negotiation surrounding the drafting of these ordinances often pits wind advocates against neighborhood associations. When the balance tips in favor of the associations, communities are faced with more strident ordinances. Renewable energy proponents in Woodbury have seen this before. Yet many wind advocates view these ordinances, however strict, to be a necessary part of the transition toward sustainability in suburban America. They represent a growing dialogue centered on finding ways to make renewable energy generators work within the confines of densely populated areas. As the push for more diverse sources of energy grows, so too will the need of communities for sensibly mapped out development paths.

This fact raises the question of what level of government should be creating these ordinances. In October, Wisconsin adopted a statewide wind siting ordinance. Other states have adopted similar ordinances in the past, or drafted model ordinances to aid local governments in creating their own. But the state ordinances tend to defer to local zoning rules when the two conflict. This is not the case with the Wisconsin ordinance, which takes precedence over any standing local rules regarding wind turbine zoning. But the Wisconsin ordinance has generated considerable backlash. Part of this can be attributed to the relative novelty of wind turbines throughout much of the country. Yet it would also seem that this resistance is due to distaste for what some perceive as an invasive policy being pushed on rural Wisconsin by Madison.

Ultimately, the objections popping up in Wisconsin are the same recycled accusations leveled at any wind project. Yet the problems they predict have, for the most part, already been resolved through technological improvements (a non reflective finish on turbine blades reduces shadow flicker effect, proper siting of turbines completely negates it) or refuted as scientifically unsound to begin with (the noise created by turbines is equal to that of a kitchen refrigerator when setback regulations are followed). A normalization of alternative energy guidelines is inevitable. But for these guidelines to encourage, rather than impede, clean energy development, we will need to see a greater push toward public awareness from all levels of government. With proper education, wind and other forms of alternative energy can be seen for what they are: virtually boundless sources of economic and environmental revitalization. But without dramatic investment by government to increase public awareness, inhabitants of much of rural America will continue to feel as if they are bearing the brunt of our energy reform, without compensation or a means to voice their opinions.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Donald permalink
    December 20, 2009 7:10 pm

    I like the Woodbury piece. DW

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