Cautiously at the 'cutting edge'Woodbury has joined a growing number of communities embracing alternative energy.
By: Scott Wente, Woodbury Bulletin
Woodbury has joined a growing number of communities embracing alternative energy.
But the embrace may be more of a handshake than a hug in Woodbury, where city officials and residents are treading cautiously because of lingering concerns about the aesthetics and safety of energy systems such as wind turbines.
City council members approved an alternative energy ordinance Wednesday, Oct. 14, capping more than a year of work on the issue. The ordinance outlines where and how solar, geothermal and wind systems can be used in the city’s zoning districts.
In adopting the guidelines, the city may have tread into new territory. As Woodbury looked to other cities and counties for guidance, it found model ordinances for the different energy systems but few examples of a comprehensive policy.
Now, city phones have been ringing as other municipalities look for ideas to incorporate into their own guidelines. Calls have come from as close as the Twin Cities and as far as Hawaii, said Melissa Douglas, the city’s senior planner and leader on alternative energy issues.
“We’re a little bit ahead, in terms of completing our ordinance,” Douglas said, “but there are very many not far behind.”
Woodbury’s ordinance permits solar and geothermal systems in all zoning areas, but there are guidelines for installation and use. The ordinance does not prohibit homeowner associations from banning solar energy systems, as was considered earlier in the process.
Wind-generated energy system guidelines have attracted the most attention. The policy prohibits large, utility-scale wind turbines, the type School District 833 considered for East Ridge High School. The district’s wind-turbine inquiries prompted the city to draft alternative energy guidelines.
The ordinance permits residential-sized wind turbines with a generating capacity of up to 10 kilowatts, larger than would be needed to power the typical home, Douglas said.
Height restrictions vary depending on the zoning district:
• Turbines are allowed on properties of at least 3 acres in the predominantly rural zone called urban reserve and in rural estate zone. Turbines can be as high as 60 feet on urban reserve property, 45 feet on rural estate land. But an interim conditional use permit would allow turbines of up to 120 feet in the urban reserve area, 75 feet in the rural estate district.
• Turbines of up to 60 feet – or 75 feet with special permits -- are allowed on business- and industrial-zoned properties that are at least 1.5 acres and not located next to residential land.
• There are tight restrictions in urban residential areas. Turbines only are allowed on properties of at least 20 acres, limiting the systems to school and church land and some homeowner associations.
The ordinance effectively prohibits wind turbines in the middle of a residential area.
Woodbury will look for feedback from other cities, including North St. Paul, that are installing utility-scale turbines before deciding whether to permit those larger units, Douglas said.
From solar panels to wind turbines, city permits will be required for any alternative energy installation.
Still, even with those safeguards and after a thorough vetting, council members were reluctant to make a motion to adopt the guidelines. They ultimately voted 5-0 to accept them.
Mayor Bill Hargis said Woodbury has taken a cautious approach to alternative energy. Some residents wanted a tight ordinance, he said, while others see it as too restrictive.
“We’re on the cutting edge, so we’re going slower than some people want,” Hargis said.
The League of Minnesota Cities, a resource, legal and lobbying organization for some 800 cities, fields calls about wind energy ordinances, but there has not been many inquiries about solar or geothermal policies, said Jeannette Bach, league research manager.
Anecdotally, at least, that could suggest not many cities have taken the route Woodbury chose, she said.
While the city now may be looked at as a model, being at the forefront also could have its disadvantages.
“I suppose when things are new, you do your best to judge what the issues are going to be,” Bach said. “As you work through it, things go swimmingly. (But) sometimes you discover there are issues you didn’t think of.”
Woodbury will review its alternative energy ordinance periodically, Douglas said, particularly because the technology is changing rapidly.