Towns throughout New England Acting to Exert Local Control over Wind Siting
January 14, 2013
In recent months, towns across New England have grappled with the issue of local wind turbine siting regulation, enacting rules governing whether, where, and how wind development can take place. The towns' activities span a wide range of issues, including sound and setback requirements, and have included new ordinances, zoning regulations or bylaws, and temporary moratoriums. The goals and tone of each varies, as some are expressly crafted to prevent specific wind projects from moving forward while others aim to provide more general guidelines for appropriate siting and development. These activities come amid ongoing tensions between efforts at streamlining "one-stop" permitting and local control. The tension is exemplified by recent efforts to pass siting legislation in Massachusetts, which have failed to progress in large part because of concerns expressed by municipalities over the possible loss of their voices in wind siting matters.
In an effort to broadly characterize some of the recent siting policy activity, a recent study conducted by Greenpeace found that Massachusetts communities with wind restrictions can be grouped into three general categories. Roughly 7% of the 351 cities and towns in the Commonwealth have minimal restrictions, 6.5% have moderate restrictions, and just more than 10% can be considered highly restrictive development environments (as of September 2012). While the analysis does not speak to the correlation of these ordinances to actual wind resources, it provides some indication of the extent of local involvement.
The following table briefly summarizes a sampling of the towns and ordinances that have received the most press in the past year.
|Interest in increasing the mandatory distance from property lines. Current regulations limit turbines to 525 ft. at blade tip, minimum setback = total height, minimum distance from property line = 100 ft.||Placeholder request for 4/3/12 town meeting denied; no official draft of new regulations presented to date|
|13-month moratorium to allow the town time to address and research the effects the structures may have on the town||Passed|
|12-month moratorium on wind development >35 kilowatts (kW)||Passed 5/20/12|
|12-month moratorium on commercial-scale wind, effectively blocking the Mt. Massaemet proposal||Passed June 2012|
|4-month moratorium on commercial-scale wind||Passed 3/12/12|
|Zoning article would limit wind turbines >10 kW to areas zoned for "general industrial" and "limited industrial" uses||Passed 6/5/12|
|Residents petitioned for a 2-year moratorium, but the proposal was voted down by the town's select board members, who expressed confidence in the current review process||Denied 9/18/12|
|Proposed ordinance limits small-scale commercial turbines (~100 kW) to a maximum height of 150 feet and residential scale turbines (~15 kW) to 35 feet above grade||Under revision|
|An extension of the existing 180-day commercial wind moratorium was considered, but the town is now pursuing a strict ordinance, perhaps enforcing a 24-hour, 40- decibels sound limit for the entire town||Under consideration; draft ordinance proposed on 9/10/12|
|New wind siting ordinance does not prohibit development but has increased setback distances||Passed 5/16/12|
|12-month moratorium on commercial-scale wind while the town officials study the effects of the Spruce Mountain project||Passed|
|New wind ordinance has increased setback requirements and stricter noise standards||Vote postponed|
|The new ordinance limits wind turbines to less than 200 feet and prohibits any that require lighting. Setbacks are determined based on a formula that includes turbine height, sound levels, and the number of turbines. It also requires a shadow flicker study that examines the effect within a 2-mile radius||Passed 3/3/12|
|The ordinance creates a setback of 1 mile from the turbines to each property line of a non-participating landowner. Turbine noise must remain under 45 decibels during the day and 32 decibels at night. Written in response to Mt. Waldo proposal||Passed 12/1/11|
|The ordinance restricts wind energy development to the top of Sunday River Ski Resort's Barker Mountain||Passed 12/19/11|
|A 6-month moratorium was drafted in response to Patriot Renewables' Canton Mountain proposal but was voted down by residents||Denied 9/22/12|
|New wind siting ordinance does not prohibit development but has increased setback distances||Passed 11/8/11|
|Wind development banned on all property except farms, which may install building-mounted, small, and medium-tower turbines||Passed 2/6/12|
|No specific proposal; current regulations being studied||Under review|
|Indefinite wind development ban while new regulations are developed (residential, commercial to be regulated separately)||Passed 9/12/11|
|12-month moratorium for all wind projects <1 MW||Passed|
|The regional planning commission for Essex, Caledonia, and Orleans Counties voted 36-3 in favor of a 3-year moratorium on all wind development in the region||Passed June 2012|
|Town meeting held to discuss amendment blocking wind development above elevation of 1,700 feet and restricting turbine height to 125 feet||Passed September 2012|
|Developers of the Seneca Mountain Wind project have agreed to respect the decision of any abutting town to approve/deny the project. Despite early efforts by these towns (including Newark) to block the proposal, it continues to move forward until the developers feel they have collected and presented sufficient information for the towns to make a decision||Under development|
It is important to note that Vermont local restrictions do not have the force of law because the state's Public Service Board has jurisdiction over such decisions. However, local actions must be considered by the board in ruling on siting decisions.
Whether the issue is sound, setbacks, shadow flicker, or other visual impacts, these various ordinances or zoning bylaws are typically crafted to meet different objectives—ranging from prohibitive, restrictive, neutral, to permissive wind turbine siting. In considering whether a regulation adopted elsewhere constitutes a "best practice" or is suited as a useful model for their jurisdiction, decision-makers must take into account what the original jurisdiction intended to accomplish.