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.