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Commissioners discuss wind-energy, solar panel ordinance

June 02, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

HAGERSTOWN -- Small wind-energy systems and solar panels would be allowed in all Washington County zoning districts with limits on size, placement, noise and other factors under a proposed ordinance discussed Tuesday by the Washington County Commissioners.

The ordinance would amend the county's zoning ordinance, which does not apply in Hagerstown or incorporated municipalities.

Its stated purpose is to facilitate the installation of the alternative energy systems by private landowners while establishing reasonable restrictions to preserve public health and safety.

Commissioner James F. Kercheval said the county has been contacted by several people eager to install systems who are awaiting passage of the ordinance.

Kercheval urged the other commissioners to pass the ordinance Tuesday, but they ultimately decided to wait until their next meeting, scheduled for June 16, to give county attorneys time to develop their desired changes into another draft.

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The proposed regulations were developed from a sample ordinance recommended by the state, Kercheval said. They authorize only small wind-energy systems, defined as systems less than 150 feet tall with capacities of 50 kilowatts or less. Kercheval said in the future, the county would propose a separate ordinance to regulate commercial wind farms.

The regulations would require setbacks from property lines and limit noise audible at the property line to 55 decibels, among other restrictions.

A public hearing on the ordinance was held April 20 and the Washington County Planning Commission recommended its approval, county Planning Director Michael C. Thompson said.

Commissioner Kristin B. Aleshire said Tuesday he thought some of the proposed regulations were overly restrictive and could deter people from installing the systems.

"I feel that the goal is to provide as much reasonable flexibility to get this type of thing off the ground," Aleshire said.

He and other commissioners agreed to loosen several of the proposed restrictions.

Much of the commissioners' discussion focused on how many small wind-energy systems to allow on each property.

The state suggested a limit of two per property, but after comments at a public hearing suggesting large farms could use more than two, the county's draft was revised to allow as many as were needed to power "established uses" on properties in agricultural, environmental conservation and preservation zoning districts.

Aleshire and Commissioner Terry Baker questioned why the county should limit the number at all. If residents want to generate more power than they need and contribute the excess power back to the grid, the county shouldn't stop them, Baker said.

Kercheval said some limits were needed to prevent people from starting commercial wind farms, which can be destructive to birds if not planned properly.

The commissioners eventually compromised, agreeing to allow enough units to generate up to double what is needed for established uses in the agricultural, conservation and preservation districts.

Another controversial provision was one proposed at a public hearing to prohibit wind systems in front yards.

Commissioner William J. Wivell said many front yards in rural parts of the county are large enough to make them appropriate wind-energy system sites.

The commissioners agreed to remove the front-yard restriction, leaving only the general provision that the wind systems must be set back from the property line by a distance equal to its height plus 20 feet.

The draft of the ordinance reviewed by the commissioners Tuesday is available online at www.washco-md.net/washco_2/pdf_files/packets/2009/090602/RZ-09-004-000_Ordinance.pdf.

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