Portland wants to set limits on wind power to keep turbines out of the skyline

Posted Nov. 30, 2011, at 5:53 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 30, 2011, at 11:36 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Maine’s largest city is considering an ordinance to regulate — but not ban — wind power there.

A wind energy ordinance in Portland could be the first in a number of new rules considered as city officials eye setting guidelines for other burgeoning technologies not currently covered in the code books.

Many smaller Maine communities are considering moratoriums on wind power due to concerns about the environmental, economic and health impacts of the large spinning turbines.

The council is due to discuss the 16-page wind ordinance in a workshop in early 2012.

“It’s really our first alternative energy ordinance, and we’re hoping to move on to solar power and other types of resources in the future,” Jean Fraser, city planner, told the Bangor Daily News this week. “It’s really opening us up to new, more technical discussions.”

The adoption of renewable energy ordinances is a sign more that the city is trying to embrace the new technologies than hinder their development, according to outgoing Mayor Nicholas Mavodones. But he acknowledged the city must be thorough, and the first in the line of ordinances — on wind power — is complicated.

Mavodones said he was impressed by the prevalence of solar and wind power generation in Germany, when he joined a contingent of American mayors on a trip to the European country.

“It is a new world for us,” he said. “To get these new ordinances in place so people can confidently tap those sources of energy is important.”

The ordinance language currently on the table would allow wind turbines as tall as 160 feet in some areas of the city, namely industrial, airport business and certain recreational open space zones. By comparison, Maine’s tallest building — Franklin Towers in Portland — stands 16 stories, or 204 feet, tall.

Wind towers taller than 300 feet have been installed in rural parts of the state.

In residential zones in Portland, the windmills are proposed to be capped at 45 feet in height on properties larger than half of an acre where there isn’t a pre-existing lower height limitation.

They would not be allowed in stream protection areas, historic landscape districts or historic cemeteries, but in nearly every other city zone, at least roof-mounted windmills — reaching no taller than 10 feet above the structure height — would be permitted.

When planned for within 100 feet of a historic structure or landmark, the ordinance calls for a project review by the city’s Historic Preservation Committee.

For freestanding wind power systems taller than 85 feet, the ordinance would implement a setback requirement of two times the height of the windmill from the property lines, and four times the height of the windmill from neighboring structures.

But so far, the proposed height allowances haven’t been the hang-up in moving the otherwise popular ordinance along.

After the Planning Board in July unanimously recommended passage of the ordinance by the City Council, the council’s Energy and Environmental Sustainability Committee voted just 2-1 in favor of the document.

City Councilor David Marshall, chairman of that committee, cast the dissenting vote, while fellow councilors Ed Suslovic and Jill Duson supported the ordinance.

Marshall said he wasn’t ready to recommend passage of the document by the larger council, in part because he’s not sold on the proposal’s language pertaining to noise.

The ordinance calls for windmills to comply with the allowable noise rules in whatever zone they’re being developed, except for in residential zones or zones without specified sound limits. In those places, the windmills must be no louder than 45 decibels at night and 50 decibels during the day, as measured at the property lines.

“I represent a neighborhood,” said Marshall, who is the District 2 councilor. “When there are issues about noise, I’m one of the first people to hear complaints. I’m more of the mindset that maybe we should be [testing the noise level] at the source instead of at the property line. [Windmill advocates will] say, ‘It’s just like having a dishwasher running in another room,’ but with a dishwasher, you know it’s going to turn off at some point. Dishwashers don’t run all day and all night.”

Even with that concern, however, Marshall said he supports the use of wind power in Portland. He just wants to make sure the ordinance is worded right before it’s passed.

“I’m really glad to have the chance to put some more time into it,” he said. “I’d like to see this be successful at a residential level and on a small scale. I just don’t want to set ourselves up for failure, and have people point back at this and say renewable energy sources aren’t working. Localized and small scale wind has a lot of great potential in Portland.”

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