WATERLOO — The wind energy industry is colliding with a mixed bag of zoning laws as it seeks to erect hundreds of new turbines across Iowa’s rural countryside.
Without a uniform state law governing location, height, setbacks and other factors, many of the state’s 99 counties have adopted individual zoning standards that will play a key role in where those turbines go.
The Courier examined how several Northeast Iowa counties regulate commercial wind energy projects after RPM Access said it would seek approval for a wind farm with up to 35 turbines in Eagle Township south of Waterloo.
While counties have a variety of rules on tower heights, setbacks, noise levels, decommissioning requirements and aesthetic issues, a key difference involves the process wind energy developers must follow to get approval.
In most counties, including Black Hawk, Bremer, Butler and Tama, an appointed volunteer board of adjustment decides whether to issue special permits for turbines.
Others, including Grundy, Buchanan and Fayette counties, require a rezoning process with final approval coming from the elected board of supervisors.
Grundy County Zoning Administrator Carie Sager said the authority question was a hot-button issue when county officials gathered in 2009 to discuss how to handle wind farms.
“The board of adjustment said, ‘We’re not paid, we’re volunteers and we don’t want to be the ones making a decision on something this big,’” Sager said. “And they were very controversial here; they were not easy decisions.”
The Grundy County Planning and Zoning Board unanimously recommended against two wind projects in the western part of the county. But the Board of Supervisors still voted to approve the zoning change allowing the 43-turbine Wellsburg Wind Project completed in 2014 and a 45-turbine Ivester Wind Project yet to be constructed.
Black Hawk County’s ordinance approved by the Board of Supervisors in July 2011 routes requests through the planning and zoning board for a recommendation and then to the board of adjustment for a special permit.
It’s only been tested once, when the board of adjustment rejected a request from Mason Wind and Optimum Renewables for three turbines in the far northeastern corner of the county.
Adam Van Dike, an attorney for Mason Wind, said the county’s requirements were high.
“It’s a very restrictive ordinance,” Van Dike said at the time. “Frankly, it’s the most restrictive we’ve seen in the state.”
Black Hawk County’s zoning ordinance states it was designed to “promote the effective and efficient use of the county’s wind energy resource” while providing “reasonable restrictions, which will preserve the public health, safety and welfare.”
The ordinance acknowledges wind energy facilities represent “significant potential aesthetic impacts” and may present risks to property values of adjoining property owners if towers are not properly sited.
While most counties require wind turbine setbacks to be at least 1.1 times the tower height — measured from the ground to the blade at its highest point — from the property lines, Black Hawk County requires a setback of 1.5 times the tower height.
The ordinance limits noise from the turbines to 60 dBA at the property lines, while developers must take reasonable steps to prevent shadow flicker and ice shedding from affecting off-site residences.
Black Hawk County also requires a certificate of insurance with minimum $2 million liability coverage and an irrevocable letter of credit, bond or cash escrow held in trust in favor of the county to recover costs associated with removal if the turbines stop functioning.
Significant opposition to the RPM Access wind farm south of Waterloo has developed as some property owners in the project area are voicing concerns about property values, the impact on birds and wildlife, protection of prime farmland and aesthetics.
A group of those residents showed up at the January meetings of both the county planning and zoning and adjustment boards, although neither panel is allowed to discuss or make decisions on the matter until an actual application is filed.
“I just can’t imagine looking out my window at 39 blinking lights every night,” resident Harold Youngblut told the board of adjustment last week.
But county zoning officials said their office also is receiving emails and letters of support for the project based on support for clean, renewable energy and perceived economic benefits.
The RPM Access project may not be the only wind farm to seek approval in Black Hawk and surrounding counties.
MidAmerican Energy Co. is looking for sites to erect up to 1,000 new turbines generating 2,000 megawatts of electricity in Iowa over the next three years through its Wind XI project approved in August by the Iowa Utilities Board.
While Wind XI’s approval was not site-specific, IUB spokesman Don Tormey said MidAmerican has committed to obtain all necessary county and local zoning and building approvals and permits for each site.