Planning Commission gets its first look at proposed amended regulations for wind farms

photo by: Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission screenshot

The Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission heard its first presentation about amended regulations for wind farms in Douglas County Monday, Dec. 19, 2022.

A draft of amended regulations for wind farms in Douglas County is now open for public comment, but the process of passing them will extend for three months and half a dozen more public meetings.

To start with, the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission heard what chair Sharon Ashworth described as a “thorough baseline” of the proposed amendments to those regulations last week. Planners Sandra Day and Cece Riley told the group the changes are an effort to align with the county’s new solar regulations passed earlier this year.

The process of developing the wind regulations amendment was initiated back in January. The difference in this process compared to developing the solar regulations, however, is that land use regulations governing wind farms — or “wind energy conversion systems” — were first adopted in April of 2017. Solar regulations, meanwhile, were built from scratch and adopted for the first time in May.

The latest discussion around regulations guiding renewable energy land use comes as, in recent months, Florida-based energy firm NextEra Energy Resources has confirmed that the company is exploring the possibility of bringing a large-scale wind farm to southwestern Douglas County. But planning staff noted at multiple occasions during last week’s meeting that neither NextEra nor any other energy company has proposed any sort of project in Douglas County.

“To date, there have been zero proposals for any commercial-scale wind farm,” Day told the commission. “We want to reiterate that, and we’ll reiterate that probably throughout this presentation and the several other meetings that we will be having about this.”

Planning staff is proposing a gauntlet of four public hearings and two community meetings, plus a 60-day public comment period on the regulations, before approving them. One commission member, Charlie Thomas, asked if the commission will ever go through the 28-page draft regulations line-by-line or page-by-page, and that may end up taking place after the public comment period closes on Feb. 5, 2023.

The first meeting on the timeline will be a community meeting from 6-9 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023, at the Greenbush Resource Center, 1104 East 1000 Road. Planning staff also plans to host an open house on the topic from 2-7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 30, at Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St.

The planning commission itself will meet four times from Jan. 23, 2023, to March 20, 2023, for a total of six commission meetings or public gatherings intended to generate feedback and discussion. The March meeting is when the group will consider recommending approving the regulations and sending them along to the Douglas County Commission.

Day and Riley, the planners, presented an overview of some of the highlights in the amended regulations, including some of the changes from their first iteration. The wind regulations govern how an applicant or operator would engage with the community through an application process in the future, Day said.

For one change, the amendment renames what previously were referred to as “small” wind energy conversion systems to “personal” ones; Day said that helps to define that such a system would be one that has a specific use to the person, property or business it’s installed on, rather than a large-scale operation adding power back to the electrical grid like a “commercial” system does.

These personal systems would carry specifications for their cumulative maximum power rating — at 50 kilowatts of electrical power on site — plus height and setback. Wind systems of this type could be no taller than 75 feet, and their setback from the nearest property line would have to match the total height measured from the center of the tower.

The bulk of the work, though, focused on commercial systems. The “key considerations” section, for example, follows the structure of the recently adopted solar regulations and places the burden of proof on the applicant to demonstrate their project will minimize the impact on nearby properties, the environment and the visual character of the area.

“That includes the life cycle of the project,” Day said. “How does it get decommissioned, and how does that land get reclaimed within the lifespan of the project?”

The amended regulations also outline a thorough application process for commercial systems. Applications would be required to include a minimum of 14 different documents, including items like visual and noise assessments, a traffic study and road maintenance agreement, and a concept plan showing the boundaries of the project.

With any one of these things missing, the applicant would not have a complete application and it would not be brought to the planning commission for consideration, Day said.

“By listing all of these things explicitly in the regulation, it puts an applicant on notice of what kinds of information they have to provide, and none of this information would be surprising,” Day continued. “There’s nothing tricky in here; this is all pretty industry-standard kinds of information requests that would go into it.”

“Design standards” is a new section for the regulations and includes commercial system setback requirements — a minimum building setback equal to 110% of the height of the tower plus the length of the wind turbine blade, and a minimum setback distance of 1,500 feet from both the participating landowner’s residence and from the property line of non-participating property owners.

photo by: Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission screenshot

This graphic shows an example of how setbacks for a commercial wind farm might look on a particular site under the county’s proposed amended regulations.

As for height requirements, commercial turbines’ “hub height” — or the distance measured from the ground immediately adjacent to the tower foundation to the center of the rotor hub — could be 80 meters tall at maximum, but the Douglas County Commission could also approve a greater height up to 110 meters if the increased height would align with other elements included in the design standards section.

photo by: Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission screenshot

This graphic shows what a wind turbine’s height may look like for the two maximum heights illustrated in the proposed amendment to the county’s regulations for wind farms, relative to the size of other structures.

The reason for recommended and actual maximums, Riley said, is to provide for some flexibility for a project.

Other elements in this section include structural design and color, safety protocols and access road requirements.

Another section, “performance standards,” pertains to standards that are applicable throughout the life of a project and must be in continued compliance. Failure to do so could be grounds for the suspension, amendment or revocation of a conditional use permit as deemed necessary by the county commission.

For example, the regulations would require the noise level during operation to not exceed 50 decibels measured at the property line of the nearest non-participating property owners. A graphic produced by the planners places 50 decibels around the sound of a dishwasher, but Riley noted that noise levels are relative, varying from person to person, and added that an increase of just 10 decibels is actually equal to double the noise level.

photo by: Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission screenshot

A graphic in a presentation to the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission illustrates what different decibel levels can sound like.

Some standards related to the project’s visual impact include specific wind turbine terminology like “shadow flicker,” or the effect of rotating turbine blades causing brightness levels to vary periodically at locations where they obstruct the sun’s rays, and “blade glint,” when sunlight reflects off turbine blades and into a person’s eye.

“These are the pieces where we’re really looking at the application in terms of is the applicant doing what they said they were going to do?” Day said.

These standards are intended as a mitigation technique if anything goes wrong or isn’t happening as expected, Riley added.

The planning commission has established a dedicated email address to generate feedback about the regulations — More information about the regulations, including a full copy of the draft, and the process of approving them is available on the City of Lawrence’s website.


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