June 19, 2024

Zoning Board provides updates on wind turbine ordinance

On May 16, the Clarke County Planning and Zoning Commission held an informational meeting at the Clarke County Courthouse to discuss proposed changes to the county’s wind energy ordinances. Members of the seven-person zoning commission present at the meeting were Randy Barnard, Jason Boyer, Jared Flaherty, Staci Heaberlin, Trever Moore and Ed White; member Paul Graves was absent. Also in attendance to answer questions were the Clarke County Board of Supervisors - Randy Dunbar, Dean Robins and Austin Taylor - and Clarke County Zoning Administrator Rob McCaulley.

Flaherty explained that the board, which is appointed by the supervisors, had met four or five times to discuss the zoning regulations in relation to wind energy conversion systems (WECS), including consulting with other counties and looking at what changes those counties are making. Those which have already allowed and dealt with WECS were of particular interest, as well as their zoning regulations.

The proposed changes will be found in Section 23 - Wind Energy Conversion Systems Regulations of the Clarke County Zoning Ordinance and Land Use Regulations Update. The zoning board focused on commercial wind farms for these changes, and not on private wind towers.

Proposed changes include:

• All WECS proposed within two miles of the boundary of a municipality will be reviewed by, or given a chance for review, by the municipality for conformance with land use regulations before the zoning board approves a project.

• Setback requirements for commercial WECS were reworked to state the distance from property lines and neighboring dwelling must be 2,000-ft or 1.5 times the height, whichever is greater. A waiver from adjoined landowner may be signed. In the case of neighboring dwellings, no dwelling will be constructed within 1,200-ft of a commercial WECS, unless a release of liability is given by the WECS.

• Setbacks for right of ways, measured from future right-of ways if a planned or expanded one is known, will be 2,000-ft or 1.5 times the height, whichever is greater. This includes railroad and utility right-of-ways.

• All WECS must be two-miles from any public conservation lands managed as grasslands.

Any other structure will require a setback of 2,000-ft or 1.5 times the height, whichever is greater.

• Setbacks for existing commercial WECS will be determined through a review based on different factors.

• Design requirement for impacts on public infrastructure such as county roads, bridges, highways, etc., caused by the construction, maintenance or removal of any WECS will be reimbursed to the affected local government. Any damages to any haul routes will be paid within 45 days.

• A section was added regarding the discontinuation and decommissioning of commercial WECS. This includes the applicant for a WECS to submit a plan to the zoning administrator for review. The plan will include a description of the life of the WECS, how the project will be decommissioned, site and land restoration and estimated costs of decommissioning at the current value at the site as determined by a licensed engineer.

• Financial surety will be required after the 15th year, will will be an amount equal to the net cost for decommissioning the site, plus a 15% contingency. This is to assure that if the WECS owner goes bankrupt, there will be money to pay for the decommissioning. The decommissioning must also be reassessed every five years and the financial surety updated to match.

• Any WECS that has not been in operation and producing electricity for at least 180 consecutive days, barring a natural catastrophic event, shall be decommissioned. Once notified by the zoning director, the owner has 270 days to either submit proof of operation of the WECS, or that it has been fully decommissioned.

Other proposed changes included: noise not to exceed 60 decibels; no WECS of more than 700-feet in height; setback from parks and lakes to be a minimum of two miles; lights on the tower will only operate if an aircraft is detected within a predetermined radius of tower; property tax shall be the responsibility of the land owner should the tower be abandoned by the last entity with ownership; a one-time $2,500 permit fee per commercial wind tower; and a limit of solar fields to a max of 400 acres for the entire county.

Clarke County Engineer David Carroll also updated a road use maintenance and repair agreement related to the development of a wind farm that companies would have to fill out prior to construction. The agreement would include who is responsible for the maintenance, repairs and reconstruction on secondary road systems. The wind farm company and contractors will be responsible for maintaining the unpaved roads within the wind farm boundary, with the roads maintained to a standard applicable by county standards as determined by secondary roads. All restorations, etc. shall be completed within six months of the final wind turbine generator component delivery (except in certain instances) where the county may extend that time frame. The county engineer would approve the road use agreements.

The proposed changes are not final, and a public hearing will be held at a later date prior to the changes being approved by the supervisors. The moratorium on the construction of wind turbines is currently still in effect, however, it is looking to be removed, hence the updated zoning ordinances. The construction of any wind farm would come with a seven-year tax abatement, as set by state law.

Candra Brooks

A native of rural Union County, Candra holds a Bachelor's Degree in English from Simpson College and an Associate's Degree in Accounting from SWCC. She has been at the Osceola newspaper since October 2013, working as office manager before transitioning to the newsroom in spring 2022.