IGH council not convinced by winds of change

(submitted photo)

Wind turbine ordinance passes first reading, but questions remain

Luke Reiter
news editor

Not all the answers are blowing in the wind, according to the Inver Grove Heights City Council.

The council is moving forward a new ordinance that would allow vertical axis wind turbines in certain residentially-zoned districts, but some council and planning commission members have raised concerns about the benefit of the ordinance and the potential eyesore of the towering machines.

The council approved a first reading of the ordinance in its Oct. 28 regular meeting. As presented, the ordinance would allow vertical axis wind turbines as a permitted use in the city’s A, E-1 and E-2 zoning districts.

The wind turbines that would be allowed in the ordinance come in a variety of designs, but are distinct from traditional windmills in that they feature upright blades that spin around the main shaft rather than a horizontal gearbox and propeller system at the top of the pole. Vertical axis turbines are considered less efficient for energy production than their traditional counterparts, but hold a distinct advantage in that they can use wind from any direction, eliminating a need for specific orientation.

Per the terms of Inver Grove Heights ordinance, residents would be allowed one turbine per 15 acres; residents with properties greater than 15 acres would be allowed to construct the turbines in clusters provided the average density did not exceed the 1 -15 ratio. The maximum height for the turbines would be 52.5 feet, with a setback from property lines equal to the height of the turbine.

At the meeting, Council member Dennis Madden said he was surprised the city is considering allowing the turbines to exceed 50 feet.

“I’ll support it because it generates power, but 52 feet seems awful high for something like that,” Madden said.

Associate Planner Heather Botten, who presented the drafted ordinance to the council, explained the maximum height for the turbines was derived from existing regulations in city code.

“In our height requirements in the code currently, for towers, church spires, flag poles, stuff like that, you’re allowed to go 50 percent higher than what the maximum height is allowed in that code,”  Botten said. “So, like, if a house is to be 35 feet, you can go 50 percent higher.”

Botten added, however, that the council could stipulate different height requirements for turbines in the ordinance if it was deemed necessary.

Legitimate need?

The proposed ordinance comes to the council with mixed endorsements: city staff has recommended passing the changes, but in its Aug. 7 meeting the planning commission voted 6-1 against the ordinance.

The planning commission cited the fact that residents are already allowed to construct vertical axis wind turbines under the current code, provided they obtain a conditional use permit.

Planning commission members also questioned the necessity of the changes, given the lack of demand (so far only one resident has expressed interest) and the fact that city staff is already working on a comprehensive alternative energy ordinance that would include regulations for solar and wind energy devices within the city. That ordinance is expected to come before the council early next year.

In addition to those concerns, Madden also questioned whether the turbines were actually effective for energy production. Madden said based on his knowledge of the subject, it didn’t seem like the turbines were consequential enough from a production standpoint to merit their own ordinance.

Vance Grannis Jr., the only resident to so far express interest in adding the turbines as a permitted use, countered it would be impossible to assess the effectiveness of the turbines within the city without allowing them. In the meantime, Grannis said suggestions that the turbines would pop up en masse and clutter the skyline were unfounded because of the expense of the materials and construction.

“People aren’t going to throw these up all over the place until someone demonstrates that it works, and that it does generate enough electricity,” Grannis said.

Grannis also addressed the height concerns, saying the expense would also inhibit the size of most of the turbines. For his purposes, Grannis said he would need turbines at the maximum height to reach winds above the wind-blocking barrier of nearby trees.

“If you have another location where you don’t have trees right in the area, you don’t have to go that high,” Grannis said.

Council member Rosemary Piekarski Krech also suggested the efficiency of the turbines wasn’t necessarily the city’s concern if the turbines were privately owned and located on private property.

“Some people want to have chickens in their back yard, some people want to grow organic — if people want to do things [that involve] more ecologically-friendly power, I’m all for it,” Piekarski Krech said.

“But the chickens aren’t 52 feet in the air,” Madden quipped.

The council approved the first reading by a unanimous vote, with directions to staff to look into further restrictions for the allowed areas and the possibility of amending the maximum height. Passing the first reading of the ordinance does not necessarily guarantee the ordinance will achieve final passage; the draft must go through at least one more hearing before it can be added to city code.

Luke Reiter can be reached at lreiter@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7815.

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