Wind turbines standards sweep through Council

After a year's worth of hot air, Kingman's City Council on Monday finally voted to establish new development standards for wind turbines within the city limits.

Council voted 4-3 to approve a text amendment to the city zoning ordinance instituting regulations for small wind energy systems. The split vote came after more than an hour of discussion and public testimonials in which several Council members voiced second thoughts on the amendment, citing renewed concerns with minimum lot sizes, setback requirements, and whether or not turbines were even a worthwhile means of cutting energy costs.

The amendment allows turbines rated at 10 kilowatts capacity or less. Height is restricted to the maximum height allowed by the zone in which a turbine is built, or up to 60 feet with a conditional use permit.

The amendment requires turbines to produce noise no louder than 60 decibels when in operation, and allows only one to be installed on plats smaller than one acre, though a second turbine can be added to larger plats.

Council's discussion focused primarily on what setback requirements were appropriate for the devices and whether or not to include a minimum lot size in the amendment.

As originally worded, the amendment imposed no minimum lot size and required setbacks be equal to the reclining length of the turbine.

But Council agreed at an earlier meeting that the original setback requirements were too restrictive to smaller properties. The amendment had been sent back to the Planning and Zoning Commission for its recommendation on one of three new setback options: 15 feet from the rear and side property lines, the minimum setbacks of the zone in which a turbine is built, or simply no setbacks at all. P&Z voted 5-2 in favor of the second option.

But at Monday's meeting, Councilman Kerry Deering couldn't shake his doubts that such lenient setbacks, combined with no minimum lot size, would ruin the view in some of Kingman's more scenic neighborhoods.

"I'm thinking, you know, with people where their homes are on very small lots, you put these up in the neighborhood, I don't know," Deering said. "If I was someone that had moved to Kingman ... and I've got this great view of the mountain in my backyard, and I can see the neighbor's edge of his roof line, but I have a straight view, and the next thing I know there's a wind turbine right there ... that's my view, I bought the house because I like the view."

Vice Mayor Janet Watson said she had paid a visit to Dr. John Lingenfelter, one of only two residents within the city limits to have already installed a wind turbine on his property. She said that since Lingenfelter's turbine was installed in June, it has already been replaced twice and required a great amount of space for workers to perform maintenance on it. She said the turbine has also failed to produce the amount of electricity advertised.

"The size of the lot does matter," Watson said. "I know it's not our job to be consumer protectors, but until there is a situation where one (turbine) in the area produces even close to what's advertised, I think we should probably have a highly restricted (minimum lot size). I'd agree to a half-acre or an acre. I'd prefer an acre."

Watson also noted that, in the event a turbine is abandoned, there is nothing in the amendment that covers who and how the turbine would be maintained or taken down.

Councilwoman Robin Gordon argued against a minimum lot size, believing that the city should make turbines available to as many people as possible, and that they would be rare enough that concerns of many turbines packed together were unfounded. She noted that lenient restrictions on turbines could gain Kingman a reputation as a green city, which might attract environmentally conscious new residents.

"I think we need to encourage this kind of technology," she said. "The cost is prohibitive. You're not going to have every single lot with one of these wind generators on it, so I think that we're worrying about a situation that's not likely to happen."

Councilman Ray Lyons said the amendment had been returned to P&Z for a recommendation on setback requirements only, and now that Council had them, they should vote on what was before them. He noted that he preferred the more restrictive first setback option more, however.

Public comments on the amendment were varied. Gwen Gillman from the advocacy group Residents Against Irresponsible Development argued that turbines in their current form remained an unproven technology, and that turbine vendors were seeking the most lenient building standards merely to line their pockets.

"These special interest groups made it sound like the owner of a wind turbine could practically get their electricity for free, and they made it sound like 60 decibels of noise per unit is no big thing," Gillman said. "The truth is that these wind turbine units cost between $10,000 and $16,000 each and have not been proven to work properly."

Gillman contended that no studies had been done to determine whether or not Kingman has enough sustained wind to make turbines a worthwhile investment, and claimed that most of Kingman's wind comes in gusts.

Resident Donna Krouse claimed that Gillman's information was badly dated, and that turbine technology has come a long way in recent years. She further stressed the need for Council to adopt some kind of standard for turbines, noting that while only two exist within the city limits now, unlicensed installers could continue building them without adhering to any standards at all.

One turbine vendor, Richard Salmonsen, said that Lingenfelter's turbine was a prime example of what could happen without an ordinance, claiming that it had been installed by an unlicensed contractor who had been more interested in making a quick buck than in optimizing energy production.

Salmonsen also noted that any contractor promising more than $20 to $30 worth of electricity per month from a turbine was "dead wrong." He admitted that brochures claiming turbines could cover the majority of a home's energy needs were based on very low average monthly power bills.

"It's all relative to how much power you use," he said. "If you have an $800 power bill, there's no way it's going to make 40 percent of your power, but if you have a $100 power bill and it makes $30, well that's 30 percent."

Watson made a motion to approve the amendment with a half-acre minimum lot size, as well as the original reclining length setback requirement. The motion failed by a 2-5 vote, with Deering the only other supporter.

Councilman Keith Walker then made a second motion to approve the amendment with the half-acre minimum lot size and the first option of 15-foot setbacks. The motion passed 4-3, with Mayor John Salem, Carole Young and Lyons also approving. Watson, Deering and Gordon voted against the measure, with Watson and Deering maintaining the need for stronger setbacks, while Gordon maintained her opposition to any minimum lot size.