Council could vote to allow wind turbines in city limits

Published 11:10 am Saturday, May 1, 2010

Monday could be the day — with an emphasis on “could” — that Austin City Council passes an ordinance that would allow wind turbine construction throughout town.

The issue has been the subject of much controversy and many meetings since it came to the forefront nearly a year ago, but it would seem that passage is not far off.

The proposed ordinance was last voted on by council in early February, when it was tabled to allow for more discussion. Councilman Jeff Austin made the motion to table, citing confusion among citizens regarding the proposed law.

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However, earlier this month at a city planning commission meeting, Austin said he was pleased with the current draft and confident that citizens had been given enough time to digest the idea of wind turbines in Austin.

The draft ordinance passed the commission on April 13, 5-2, and seemed set to pass council six days later, but without full attendance at that meeting, the issue was tabled.

Now, because the ordinance has been altered since council last voted on it, a unanimous vote will be needed Monday to pass the law.

That’s because the ordinance will be considered in its “first reading.” The same situation played out at a Jan. 19 council meeting, when council actually voted 5-2 in favor of the ordinance — normally enough for a vote to pass, but not the unanimous vote required on first reading per the city charter.

Thus, another 5-2 vote Monday would draw the process out for two weeks until the council’s next meeting, but a 5-2 vote on the ordinance’s second reading would get it passed.

The changes to the draft that are making this process necessary revolve around where the turbines would be allowed. Initially, council voted on an ordinance that would have permitted the structures in most zoning areas — including residential neighborhoods — but not in the downtown business district. The updated ordinance would allow turbines in all city zones, though all projects would require individual permitting and would be subject to a list of restrictions. The restrictions would include a limit on height — 75 feet in residential areas — and blade size, as well as a stipulation that a tower be set back from a property at a minimum distance of 1.1 times a tower’s height.

A debate has brewed over whether it would be wise to allow turbines anywhere in the city, including neighborhoods. Proponents, including Jim Stiles, the owner of Super Fresh Produce who would like to put a tower on his property, have touted the environmental benefits of the “green energy” source.

Others, including Mayor Tom Stiehm, have noted that because each individual tower would require a permit — and because of restrictions on setback distance, blade size and the like — citizens should not expect an explosion of turbines in the community. Instead, Stiehm said he would expect a few towers from those really serious about wind energy.

“I would assume we’re going to have very few, if any, wind turbines come out of this. It’s the type of thing that technology is still developing, and people don’t want to put that kind of money into a wind turbine and than have it outdated in five years,” Stiehm said. “You’re just not going to see the wind turbines springing up like people fear.”

However, that sentiment hasn’t been enough to soothe the concerns of some residents, namely those living at Oak Park Village, which is near Stiles’ Super Fresh store. The group has stated that turbines would ruin aesthetics, property values and quality of life in their area.

“This looks like it’s going to go (forward) regardless of what we think,” resident Bob Clark said at a January planning commission meeting. “There are people out there upset.”

City Council is set to meet Monday at 5:30 at City Hall.