The Residential Wind Turbine Zoning Dilemma

I live in the geographical middle of Colorado at about 9,000 feet elevation.  It is a location that is rich in solar and wind energy, and since the wind blows strongest during the winter months, a hybrid wind and solar PV system made the most economic sense for a home energy system.  What I didn’t realize is that one of the biggest obstacles to small residential wind turbine systems is the lack of zoning regulations.  So when I contacted the local county planning and building departments to discuss my plans, I quickly found out that they just didn’t know how to handle a request for wind turbine.  There was nothing written in their zoning ordinances to deal with a wind turbine.

Zoning ordinances are based on legal principle of “police power”, which is the power of counties, townships, and cities to regulate in order to promote the health, morals, safety, and general welfare of the community.   The problem is that there are nearly 40,000 counties, townships, and cities in the U.S. and all of them at some time will have to decide how to regulate wind turbines.

The first obstacle will be height.  In nearly every residential zone in America, structures are limited to 35 ft in height.  This 35 foot height limitation is based on firefighting limitations from the early 1900’s, but has now taken on a life of it’s own and governs the scale of residential development.   Since wind turbines need to be at least 20 feet above surrounding building and trees, a 35 foot height limitation is a non-starter.  Where I live in the Colorado Rockies,  most residential users would need 65 to 85 foot towers just to get sufficiently above the aspen and ponderosa pine tree canopies.

If a 35 foot height limitation is imposed for wind turbines, a larger tower would require a “special use” or “conditional use” permit.  This typically requires a public hearing process that can potentially cost homeowners thousands of dollars in legal fees and may take several months.   A simple variance process would leave the homeowner wanting to install a wind turbine at the mercy of his neighbors.  Any one of which could veto the project without reasonable cause.

Zoning ordinances are subject to local politics, and the politics of regulating wind turbines within residential zones is all about their perceived impact on property values.  That perception is based on attitudes about a wind turbines visual and acoustic impact combined with the cost of electricity.  At 12¢/kWh, a wind turbine might be considered an eyesore.  At 50¢/kWh it suddenly becomes an object of beauty, quietly drawing free energy from a gentle breeze.  As utility rates continue to increase, wind turbines will transition in perception from potential property value degraders to property value enhancers and the right to access air flows will trump ascetics.

However, for the time being, the politics of zoning will keep wind turbines out of higher density suburban developments and probably limit their use to lot size densities of one acre or more.

Back home in the middle of Colorado, I’ve been working with the county on formulating a workable ordinance for wind turbines that treads the eye of the political needle.  A copy of the draft is attached here.

I’ll let you know how it turns out.

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6 responses to “The Residential Wind Turbine Zoning Dilemma

  1. I dont understand why there is a limitation of one acre. I think that excludes way too people. I feel it can be done safely in residential areas and should. We are ignorant if we do not use this free resource and use it now. There should be safey measure for residential areas but it can and should be done. Why am I excluded. Now I have to buy another house because I want to use wind. No, we need to figure out a way to allow everyone to use it. How unjust to do that. I live in Colorado and I object. I am in the process of figuring itout for my home in a subdevelopment with less then 1 acre. Why ok for you and not for me.

  2. Thanks Sue,
    I actually agree with you. It is unfair and has more to do with the politics and perceptions of residential wind power. Higher density developments with small lot sizes and homeowner associations tend to be much more sensitive to things that look different. It was hard enough to gain acceptance for solar panels on roofs, let alone 65 foot towers with wind turbines on top. Not only will there be objections to the visual impact, adjacent homeowners will be concerned about safety (what if it falls into my yard or home?), property values, and noise. As a result, I think electrical costs will have to increase substantially before wind towers will be allowed into the landscape of suburbia.

  3. The idea of large tower-mounted generators in most residential subdivision lots is a non-starter for me. I wouldn’t care to see a “small” 65′ tower-mounted turbine in any front yard of my neighborhood. Something that large (particularly if the tower is guyed) is just too large for a one-acre or smaller lot–even in the backyards. They are more suited for a more open setting.

    You may want to consider a vertical-axis turbine alternative. One company is putting a 30′ tall x 2′ diameter, 1kW ground-mounted unit into mass production in early 2009. A Chicago suburban bank just installed six of them at the edge of its parking lot.

    Another company is planning to offer lightweight units that can be mounted on a rooftop–with moving parts that are barely visible. These units are relatively small, “bird-friendly,” and far easier to maintain. Yes, they may be less efficient than horizontal-axis “propeller” units; but they’ll do the job when it comes to trimming a homeowner’s electric bill–with much less intrusion.

  4. Thanks Mac,

    I agree, that’s why you’ll only find the guyed tower turbines in rural areas. The problem with roof mounted turbines is in isolating the vibration from the turbine from affecting and greatly annoying the occupants of the home.

  5. I was a “green” thinking person long before it was cool…..but a residential wind turbine has been installed 2 houses from me (1 acre lots) and the noise is absolutely awful. It is a high pitched siren sound that will drive you stark raving crazy in just a few minutes. Can no longer enjoy my garden, patio, pool, etc. There is NO WAY that this adverse affect on neighbors should ever be allowed.

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