Time To Act Regionally On Wind Power

August 06, 2009|By Ruth Goldstein

Now that Baltimore City has had its first wind turbine zoning case, it's time for metropolitan Baltimore to get serious about a regional advisory panel on renewable energy resources. Baltimore County has been grappling with this issue since last year, when a farmer in Phoenix wanted to erect a 120-foot windmill on his 97-acre property - far larger than the 8-foot turbine a city zoning panel rejected for a rowhouse rooftop in Federal Hill. In the county, which, like Baltimore, had no regulations to provide guidance, the zoning commissioner granted the request.

Now the suburban subdivisions of 1-acre lots with million-dollar homes that bookend the farm will all have perfect views of this industrial tower silhouetted on the ridge of the pristine valleys in which they are nestled.

Still, a farm in Phoenix seemed far removed from most people's lives until one resident on a quiet little street of suburban ranchers on half-acre lots in Pikesville requested a variance for an 80-foot windmill. Neighbors quickly mobilized and launched a petition drive to oppose this skyscraper in their backyard. They didn't need scientifically conducted studies to convince them that the safety issues, noise and effect on property values made a structure the size of a cellular phone tower incompatible with suburban living.

After that case, Baltimore County finally decided it was time to write legislation to regulate wind turbines, and the facts have come rolling in. The problem is, in an effort to demonstrate support for reducing Baltimore County's carbon footprint (and who isn't in favor of reducing our carbon footprint?) the draft proposal submitted to the Baltimore County Planning Board for its approval made flawed recommendations.

The proposal chose to completely ignore the issue of aesthetics and property values. But there are precedents: The town of Derby, Vt. ruled that a wind turbine reduced the value of an adjacent property by 10 percent for real property tax purposes. In Goshen, Ct. a town council voted to deny a proposal for a 200-foot turbine because of concerns about its "adverse effects upon the existing and probable future character of the neighborhood or its property values."

The fact is, there is an aesthetic value placed on real property, and whether it is an urban-scale roof-turbine or a towering industrial structure, these machines as they are currently conceived are simply incompatible with residential communities.

Then there is the little detail of wind: The draft report concedes that there is a "lack of steady energetic wind" in Baltimore County, but there is no requirement in the recommendation for a mandatory wind study before a turbine can be erected.

The worst section by far, though, is the part that specifically permits one 150-foot-high wind turbine on any lot of 1 acre or more by right, not by special exception. That means no hearing, no input by the community, no opportunity for neighbors to find out about the project, no chance for the zoning board to investigate the site, the engineering plans, the setbacks, the wind study, the ambient noise level - or any other variables that could be presented in a case-by-case situation.

Amid opposition from community groups, the planning board postponed a decision and in July formed an ad hoc committee to consider the issue further.

More than an ad hoc committee, this technology warrants comprehensive research, including consultation from sound engineers, real estate and appraisal professionals, environmental researchers, public policy experts and, very importantly, input from residents who are directly affected. Now that Baltimore City has heard its first case, this is clearly a metropolitan issue with over-lapping communities and interests.

A regional renewable energy advisory panel could produce an integrated package of legislation for residential consumers that would address all appropriate technology, creating a holistic, sustainable energy policy that promotes a range of viable, alternative energy sources (such as solar, geothermal, large-scale energy co-ops, etc.) to reduce our collective carbon footprint, rather than a narrow recommendation that focuses solely on wind turbines.

A well-thought out public policy can insure that we do not suffer from the unintended consequences of well-intentioned people.

Ruth Goldstein is president of the Greater Midfield Association. Her e-mail is ruthgoldstein@comcast.net.

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