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Our View: Baltimore Should Develop Rules For Wind Turbines On Top Of City Buildings

August 05, 2009

When it comes to what people put on the roofs of their houses, ugly is in the eye of the beholder. Some people love rooftop decks. Some people think they're eyesores that destroy the historic nature of Baltimore's waterfront communities. (And some people love their rooftop decks and hate everybody else's.)

But what if the structure you're trying to put on top of your house has a purpose more noble than providing a good place to drink beer and watch the fireworks? That question is dividing Federal Hill over the effort by one homeowner, Marsha Vitow, to install a small wind turbine on top of her rowhouse. The 8-foot-tall vertical structure probably wouldn't generate enough electricity to take her off the grid entirely, but it would help reduce her carbon footprint and, if it became a trend, could make a measurable difference for the environment. Some of her neighbors are dead set against it, but others signed a petition backing her efforts.

Trouble is, the city's laws don't anticipate this kind of thing, stymying city officials just as their counterparts in Baltimore County were when confronted with requests for larger turbines in suburban and rural areas. Baltimore's Board of Municipal Zoning Appeals rejected Ms. Vitow's request Tuesday. But given the evidence she presented that the turbine would be safe and not harm the structure of her home, it's hard to imagine how the board can justify the rejection when it routinely allows decks, antennas and additions that exceed the 35-foot residential height limit. This may not be the kind of structure people are used to seeing on top of houses, but if we're going to get serious about changing our energy use, we're going to have to get used to some new things.

Mayor Sheila Dixon's administration, which has made environmental sustainability a hallmark, needs to step in. The mayor should take the lead in developing a set of policies to govern the installation of turbines, solar panels and other new-energy technologies. Several other cities have adopted zoning codes to address the issue - and have enacted incentives to encourage residents to try their hands at wind farming. Suburban counties should get in on the act, too - wind turbines, after all, tend to work better in wide open spaces.

It's unclear whether wind turbines would be a practical way to change Baltimore's carbon footprint. All the other buildings may block too much wind. Then again, the presence of so much water nearby might change the calculus. So far, residential electric generation in Maryland has been almost exclusively solar - a 2008 report by the Public Service Commission found little residential wind generation in the state, and none in the Baltimore area. But the only way to find out if wind is a viable part of the mix is to try it. If homeowners like Ms. Vitow are willing to put forward the investment for experiments like this one, the city should find a way to make it happen.

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