Residential wind turbines off the table

Published 8:00 am Tuesday, May 18, 2010

With plenty of controversy surrounding the idea of allowing wind turbine construction in residential areas, City Council took a step forward Monday with a compromise.

During a work session, council motioned to have Craig Hoium, the city’s planning director, rewrite a proposed turbine ordinance with language that would prohibit construction in residential areas. However, schools within these areas would be exempt from this restriction and would be able to apply for turbine construction permits.

This all comes on the heels of nearly a year of debate on the wind turbine ordinance issue. During that time, the proposed law has gone through a number of changes — initially, a draft would have prohibited the structures in residential areas but permitted them elsewhere in Austin. However, council ultimately decided that the issue warranted more discussion, and the ordinance went back to the drawing board.

That was late last year, and in the months since, the city’s planning commission put out a proposal that would have allowed the structures in residential areas, though all projects would have required individual permits and would have been subject to a list of restrictions. The restrictions would have included 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 line at a minimum distance of 1.1 times a tower’s height.

Earlier this month, that proposal lost on a 3-3 tie vote, with councilman John Martin absent. Voting against the ordinance were Brian McAlister, Steve King and Marian Clennon, with McAlister and King both making it very clear that they had reservations about allowing wind turbines in neighborhoods.

“I think allowing them in residential areas is a bad idea,” McAlister said at the May 3 meeting. “You can be quite sure if one does pop up, (council) is going to hear about it.”

On Monday, McAlister added to that by saying that among constituents to call him on the issue he didn’t, “recall even one being in favor of allowing them in residential areas.”

Mayor Tom Stiehm echoed that sentiment.

“I haven’t talked to one person who wants them in their neighborhood,” he said.

The compromise discussed Monday could appease those worried about having the structures in their backyards, but could also satisfy wind energy proponents. One, retired Austin pastor Marvin Repinski, said turbines are an essential part of a clean-energy future. But he also said he could understand not having them in neighborhoods and said he liked the most recent proposal.

Whatever direction council heads, they’d like to do so soon — on June 28, a moratorium on turbine construction expires. Because that would mark 180 days — specifically, three, 60-day periods — with the restriction in place, the city by law would not be able to enact another moratorium. And that would mean an open season of sorts for those interested in building wind turbines, provided other established building codes were met and only until a specific ordinance was established.

Council has two scheduled meetings before that date — one on June 7, another on June 21.

Councilwoman Janet Anderson said the city would be well served to enact the ordinance in the timeframe but to keep an open mind to future changes.

“As the energy evolves, we can revisit (the ordinance),” she said. “I think it’s a really good compromise at this point.”