Austin drafts ordinance regulating wind turbine growth within city limits

Published 8:55 am Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Jim and Merlene Stiles, owners of Super Fresh Produce in Austin, are interested in building a wind turbine on their property.

But as of now, they can’t — a local moratorium is in place on turbine construction as this city is without a specific ordinance regulating their construction.

That could change, however, as city officials go forward with a draft ordinance that would lay out the dos and don’ts of wind turbine growth within city limits.

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“We have to go that way, toward renewable,” Jim Stiles said. “This is just another step in the process.”

Craig Hoium, community development director in the city, said he’d like to have something for the council to look at in November and hopefully have a new ordinance passed by the end of the year.

But the process won’t be without some challenges.

Hoium said turbines work best when they’re at least 300 feet from a structure that would cause wind turbulence. There’s also important considerations regarding the distance between turbines and their allowable height.

Because of this — and because a nearby turbine can make a good deal of noise — Hoium said the main question will be how to regulate turbine construction in residential areas.

When the idea of a wind turbine ordinance came up for discussion at an Oct. 5 city council meeting, some council members expressed concern about allowing them to be built in neighborhoods, including Steve King.

“I would be leery of (allowing them) in residential areas,” he said. “I’d want to see more on that.”

Hoium said a number of ordinances and draft ordinances exist in other communities, which he will look at in crafting a potential local law.

When it comes to commercial and industrial areas, Hoium said it is likely that those interested in building a wind turbine would need to get a conditional-use permit.

That would mean Jim and Merlene Stiles would have to first get the OK from the city planning commission before getting final approval from the council.

Merlene Stiles said if and when she and her husband are able to build, they’d like to build a large turbine on the ground.

That structure would resemble a turbine built recently by Wally Bustad at the site of his excavating business near Highway 218, which is not in the city limits and not affected by the moratorium.

However, wind turbines don’t have to be 100-foot monoliths. Many modern versions are small, compact and roof-mountable.

While these might not be favored by business owners like Bustad and the Stiles, they could be part of the solution in neighborhoods.

No matter what happens, Jim and Merlene Stiles want it to be sooner rather than later — there are a number of tax incentives available for people looking to build turbines, but funding is not guaranteed in 2010 or beyond.

If wind turbines do start popping up in the city, Jim Stiles said they will be highly visible symbols of a big accomplishment — moving toward greener energy.

“It’s a great opportunity for Austin to really stand out,” he said.