City Council: Turbines riding high on Council vote

Vote raises height limit to 43 feet in most residential zones

KINGMAN - Local wind energy enthusiasts won a major victory Monday evening when the Kingman City Council voted to raise the maximum permitted height for wind turbines in most of the city's residential zoning districts.

By a 5-1 vote, councilmembers amended the zoning ordinance to allow turbines as high as 43 feet, or the maximum building height of the surrounding zoning district - whichever is higher. The zoning ordinance formerly restricted turbines to the maximum height of the surrounding zoning district only, which is 30 feet in most residential zones.

Wind turbine vendors Tony Kuc and Richard Salmonsen had argued the 30-foot residential height limit was an oversight in the original turbine standards, which were added to the zoning ordinance only last November. They claimed the model of turbine the standards were based on, the SkyStream 3.7, was normally installed at an industry-standard height of 41 feet.

The vendors contended that by restricting turbine heights to the maximum height of the zoning district, Council had essentially forced nearly every residential client to spend an extra $500 to obtain a conditional use permit, which allows turbines to be built as high as 60 feet. Kuc and Salmonsen argued that the permit was an unnecessary burden to their clients and to the city itself, since the cost of advertising and processing a conditional use permit is actually higher than the $500 application fee.

In looking at the amendment, Councilmembers also considered two other stipulations that would have increased the setback requirements for turbines from 15 feet to 20 feet and required each turbine to come with a decommissioning plan detailing its expected lifespan, how much it would cost to tear down, how the buyer would cover that cost, and how the turbine would be disassembled.

Salmonsen argued against any decommissioning requirements, noting that the city has no similar requirements for telephone poles or unattended swimming pools, each of which, he argued, was more likely to hurt or kill someone than a well-engineered wind turbine. Kuc further contended that it was unnecessary to increase the setback requirements to 20 feet since the current setbacks actually translate to 21 feet once the six-foot length of the turbine blade is taken into consideration.

Both men spent much of the discussion defending the safety of their product, since safety concerns were what originally led Vice Mayor Janet Watson to recommend the decommissioning language.

Both men stressed the SkyStream's engineering credentials, arguing that the turbines were built to withstand wind speeds in excess of 190 miles per hour.

Mayor John Salem said his major concern with the SkyStream was the turbine's speed brake - namely its method of operation and the possibility of failure. Salmonsen assured Salem that the speed brake utilizes powerful rare earth magnets, and actually requires electricity to displace the magnets and allow the turbine to spin.

Without power, Salmonsen said, the brake's default position is to hold the blades in place, so there should be no concern for abandoned turbines spinning wildly out of control.

"Without power, it's stuck, so the thing could never spin," Salmonsen said. "It's a non-friction brake system, so it doesn't wear, it's a non-wear part."

Salmonsen also assuaged Salem's fears of what might happen if one of the turbine blades should chip or crack from exposure to the elements.

"If the blades are more than one-half gram difference in weight, a half of a gram, the unit will shut down," he said.

"It's not going to spin."

Vice Mayor Watson asked why Kingman's ordinance should be any different from those of many other cities, whose ordinances include stipulations requiring regular maintenance and decommissioning plans for turbines. Kuc said those ordinances were based on older turbine models that included many more moving parts and thus required more maintenance.

The SkyStream, he said, had comparatively few parts and used carbon fiber materials meant to last at least 20 years without any maintenance except occasional bolt-tightening.

Councilwoman Carole Young noted that Kuc's claims applied only to his product, when there were clearly many other types of wind turbines that vendors might try to install in town. Kuc said this was true, and urged Council to consider creating a list of acceptable vendors, approving or rejecting each new model as it's proposed, and requiring those vendors to go through the same process he and Salmonsen went through.

Watson said she believed it would be a mistake to give up on the conditional use permit for turbines that exceeded the maximum allowed residential height limit, arguing that the permitting process informs nearby residents of what's going up in their neighborhood and gives them a chance to speak for or against it.

Councilman Keith Walker countered this, noting that turbines would still be subject to covenants, conditions and restrictions, such as those of a homeowners association, and that Council could always revisit the ordinance should the new height limits cause a flurry of complaints.

Councilman Ray Lyons made a motion to approve only the new height limits, without the new setback or decommissioning requirements. Keith Walker seconded, and the motion passed, with Watson the sole opposition.

Councilwoman Robin Gordon was excused from the meeting.