Thursday, May 7, 2009

Sterling Town Meeting: Vote No on Article 46

Among the articles on the agenda at Monday’s Sterling town meeting is Article 46, which would set guidelines for the erection and use of windmills for electric power. At first blush, it seems like a good idea. But a close reading of the regulations reveals that the proposal would serve mainly to prohibit wind power from all but the largest land owners in town.

Citizens of Sterling should reject Article 46 and ask the Light Board and the Planning Board to come back with a proposal that allows homeowners to pursue wind energy as an option.

The proposed bylaw would set such restrictive rules around the siting of a windmill that it would be nearly impossible to erect one:
Setbacks. The minimum setback for the wind turbine shall be maintained equal to the overall height calculation plus one hundred (100) feet from all property boundaries of the site on which the WECS [Wind Energy Conversion System] is located. In addition, the WECS shall be set back a distance of the Height Calculation plus one hundred (100) feet from any ways, access easements, trails, ascertainable paths and above ground utility lines.

An earlier clause sets the maximum height of a turbine at 100 feet, so a land owner who erected a windmill of the maximum height in the dead center of her lot could only do so if the lot were at least 400 feet across and 400 feet deep (100-foot windmill height plus 100-foot setback on all four sides).

In other words, a maximum height windmill is only available to landowners with at least 3.67 acres of land if the land is completely vacant. If the lot has a home on it with an above-ground electric, phone, or cable lines; or if the lot has a driveway, then the 200-foot setback would be calculated from there.

(A landowner hoping to erect a 50-foot windmill would need a vacant lot 300-feet square, or a little over 2 acres.)

The main point of requiring a setback should be safety—that is, if the windmill were to fall down (or if ice were to fall from a rotor) it shouldn’t land on any cars, homes, your neighbor’s property, etc. Apparently the crafters of Sterling’s bylaw are worried that a fallen windmill will bounce, roll, dance, shimmy, or otherwise move a distance of twice the fall zone. Either that, or they don’t want any windmills in town.

By comparison, here is the setback provision in the model bylaw proposed by the Massachusetts Division of Energy Resources and the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs to assist towns in the crafting of their WECS regulations:
4.1 Setbacks
Wind turbines shall be set back a distance equal to the total height of the wind turbine from all inhabited structures, overhead utility lines, public road or right of way and at least 5 feet from property boundaries.

4.1.1 Setback Waiver
The building inspector may reduce the minimum setback distance if written permission is granted by the entity with care and control over the affected asset.
The state suggests that a turbine needs only to be setback by the height of the structure. It only requires the setback to be from public ways and utility lines (not “trails” or “ascertainable paths”), and it only suggests that it be five feet from your neighbor’s property (assuming that it meets other setback provisions).

The state’s proposed bylaw assumes that wind energy is something to be embraced, and its provisions encourage the use of wind energy. The proposed Sterling bylaw is meant to restrict it.

Now, not every town that has a WCES bylaw is as permissive as the state’s proposal (most that I reviewed included the property line as one of the items required by the setback), but none of the ones I found were nearly as restrictive as Sterling’s. Here are the first ten current or proposed Massachusetts town bylaws that I found by doing a Google search, and their setback requirements:
One of the ten towns requires a setback of less than the height of the tower, four require a setback equal to the height of the tower, and five require setbacks greater than the height of the tower. But even the most restrictive of those only requires a setback of 25 feet.

The Harvard bylaw has not yet been ratified and is before the town meeting this month. Despite setback regulations that are much less confining than Sterling’s, a former member of Harvard’s Wind Energy Conversion Systems Task Force told the Harvard Press that the Harvard proposal was too restrictive:
The way the amendment is currently structured and worded, it is basically a prohibition on residential windmills in Harvard.
The same goes for Sterling. Residents who believe that the town should allow its citizens to pursue alternative sources of energy should join me in voting no on Article 46.

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