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Zoning for small Wind Turbines
Here’s what belongs in a zoning ordinance
and what doesn’t.
By MICK sAGrILLo
Mick Sagrillo, a small-wind consultant, owns
Sagrillo Power & Light
and is wind energy
specialist for Focus on
program. Research for
this article was funded
in part through
Wisconsin’s Focus on
Energy Program. Contact him at msagrillo@
Zoning rules for wind turbines should not restrict lot
size, number of towers or
In the last column, we reviewed setbacks for wind
turbines, determining that a setback equal to the
total height of the structure is a reasonable distance to require from property lines, roads and utility lines. In this column, we’ll look at other concerns
that might be addressed in permitting wind turbines.
It is not unreasonable for a wind turbine to be required to
meet a slate of standards, as any other structure might need
to do to be permitted and constructed. Keep in mind that
zoning for small wind should be adopted primarily to protect public safety. Standards that should be considered in a
small wind zoning ordinance might include the following.
• Signs: Any signs other than the wind turbine manufacturer’s or installer’s logo or name should be minimized. The
purpose of a wind turbine and tower is to generate electricity, not serve as a billboard. The exception to this could be
signage at the bottom of the tower warning against trespassing or of high voltage.
• Lighting: Permanent artificial lighting should also be
discouraged unless required by the Federal Aviation Administration (which almost never happens for small wind
systems). Lighting is intrusive around homes and rural
property, while serving no real purpose.
• Appearance and color: Wind turbine manufacturers use
weather-resistant paints and coatings, avoiding obtrusive
and unnatural colors. Painting a turbine or tower in fluorescent chartreuse or bright orange should be discouraged.
• Access to the tower: Like a swimming pool, a tower
may be deemed an “attractive nuisance.” Unauthorized
climbing has not, in fact, been documented, just as it has
not been an issue with climbable utility and highline towers. Climbing can be discouraged by removing the lower
climbing steps or sheathing the bottom of the tower. Restricting the bottom 8 feet or so of the tower is sufficient.
Fences are unnecessary and may impede safe access by authorized personnel.
• Access to electrical equipment: All disconnect switch-es and junction boxes at the bottom of the tower should be
secured to prevent unauthorized access. They should also
be labeled with high-voltage signage.
• Wiring: All electrical wires from the tower to the location of the control system, usually in a secured building,
should be buried for protection. This is standard utility and
• Code compliance: The wiring and associated electrical equipment should comply with the National Electrical
Code (NEC) and with local or state electrical codes. At
this time, there is no specific section in the NEC applicable
to small wind systems. A section is being written and will
be adopted in the next few years.
• Utility notification: If the wind turbine is to be grid-connected, the local utility will want to know about the
system. Most utilities have procedures in place to inspect
and approve interconnected renewable energy systems.
While this is of concern to the local utility and not a zoning issue, it is nice to be assured that the applicant for the
system is following all of the rules.
A variety of non-issues or concerns have been used to
thwart the installation of wind systems. In the 30-year history of modern small wind turbines, these additional restrictions have no foundation in safety concern.
• Lot size: Occasionally, zoning ordinances specify a
minimum lot size for a wind system. However, if the homeowner can meet the total height setback from property
lines, roads and utility lines, there is no need to specify a
minimum lot size. If the applicant can secure approval from
the affected party to reduce the total height setback, then
it should be obvious to the zoning authority that a setback
concern does not exist.
• Multiple turbines: It’s the rare individual who wishes
to install more than one wind turbine and tower, but they
are out there. Like lot size, if the applicant can meet the setbacks, restricting a homeowner to one turbine and tower
does little to protect public health or safety.
• Setbacks from the owner’s home or buildings: This
is another requirement that occasionally appears in ordinances, adopted to limit or restrict wind turbine and tower
installation with no reasonable justification.
• Sound: Fears that a small wind turbine will generate
sound and keep the neighborhood awake are spillovers
from the permitting of wind farms. Small wind turbines
are not wind farms. Manufacturers of modern small wind
turbines are sensitive to concerns about sound, and noisy
equipment of any sort simply is not acceptable. Small wind
turbines can easily meet the sound limits placed on other
activities for a given zoning district. The exception might
be during storms and utility power outages, both of which
are out of anyone’s control. During storms, buildings rattle,
and the wind passing through trees is usually louder than a
wind turbine. Most wind turbine controllers automatically
shut down the turbine in the event of a power outage. If
not, the owner does so out of concern for the equipment
In the next column, we’ll look at the responsibilities of
the turbine owner for maintaining the wind turbine or removing it if the system is no longer operable. ST