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Council asks city attorney to review proposed wind turbine ordinance

This wind turbine owned by Richard Fagen is located at the Heartland Preserve outside Granite Falls. Willmar City Council members have asked the city attorney to investigate whether similar small wind turbines would be allowed within the city limits of Willmar even if the city has no ordinance to regulate turbines. Tribune photo by Susan Lunneborg

WILLMAR -- Willmar City Council members want to know if small wind turbines would be allowed within the city limits even if the city has no ordinance to regulate turbines. That's the question council members have asked City Attorney Rich Ronning to answer.

The question arose during a council hearing Monday night on a proposed ordinance that would regulate and set standards for smaller wind turbines in residential and commercial areas. Council members tabled the ordinance until they hear from Ronning.

Mayor Les Heitke asked Ronning if turbines are allowed in the city without an ordinance. Ronning said he had not read the proposed ordinance.

Bruce Peterson, director of planning and development services, offered the opinion that turbines would not be permitted if the city does not have an ordinance.

The turbine idea arose after a local resident asked if he could erect a turbine to charge golf cart batteries.

"The intent was to provide for their use but to avoid systems within the city limits that would create visional issues, trying to avoid larger systems within the city limits that would generate enough power to sell back onto the grid,'' he said.

"That's a healthy thing to do but it requires a system of a large enough size that they have more potential to create problems,'' he said. The ordinance "does not provide for any large systems in the city limits unless they would be of a type that would be constructed by a utility.''

The Municipal Utilities is allowed turbines because the city provides for essential services' structures, and the utility is deemed an essential service. It's not the same if a resident or a company wanted to put one up, he said.

Council member Doug Reese said he wants to be open to new ideas and different ways to produce power, but he wanted to know for sure that turbines would not be allowed if the council did not adopt the ordinance.

He offered a motion, which the council approved, to table the ordinance for Ronning's review.

The turbines being considered are commonly known as vertical axis turbines. Peterson described them as a pop can on a stem, not a three-bladed configuration. The ordinance would allow a turbine height of 35 feet from the ground to the top of the blade in a residential area and a height of 55 feet from the ground to the top of the blade in a commercial area.

Council member Denis Anderson had no problem with turbines in commercial areas, but said he did not favor turbines in residential areas because they would cause visual problems.

Bruce DeBlieck questioned whether any turbines should be allowed. Peterson said the council would have to make that decision.

Peterson said he thought fewer than half the residential lots in Willmar would be large enough to comply with setback requirements. A lot must provide sufficient room for a turbine to fall and not land on a neighbor's property, he explained.

Council members Steve Ahmann and Rick Fagerlie supported the ordinance.

"I thought it would be kind of neat to have one in our yard,'' he said. "The Planning Commission is doing the right thing, getting ahead of the program.''

Ahmann called the ordinance forward thinking.

"As time proceeds, the look of Willmar will change,'' he said. "The green issue won't go away. The environment won't go away. If people are forward enough thinking and want to invest in it, I don't think we should discourage them.''

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150