Wind farms added as special exception

Friday, April 12, 2019

Not wanting to leave the answers (my friend) blowin’ in the wind, the Putnam County Plan Commission on Thursday added new language to the county zoning ordinance regarding wind farms.

The commission voted to allow wind energy conversion systems, as the behemoth windmills and turbines are more formally called, as a special exception in all zones in Putnam County.

The matter will now go to the Putnam County Commissioners for formal approval.

Wind farms are not addressed by the county zoning ordinance, which was passed in 1991.

As such, the only way for anyone to have applied to install a windmill would have been to apply for a use variance, a request the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) almost never grants.

By making wind farms a special exception, applicants would have a path to potentially installing windmills.

As a special exception, each case will go before the BZA for consideration. Although the board is much more likely to allow a special exception than a use variance, it is also able to place specific requirements on any granted exception.

“As our zoning sits right now, wind farms are not addressed,” Ensley said prior to passage. “This would allow the BZA to set what the development standards would be.”

At first glance, the change appears to make it easier to build a wind farm. Local attorney John Zeiner, who was in the audience at the monthly Plan Commission meeting, asked if the goal was to enable wind farms, considering that it’s easier to get a special exception than a use variance.

While Ensley allowed that gives applicants a path, he feels safer defending the county’s interest if the issue is addressed directly.

“Yours is a very good question,” Ensley told Zeiner. “I’m just afraid of someone coming in and thinking they have carte blanche.”

As he sees the current law, it’s harder if wind farms aren’t addressed. Not everyone would see it that way.

“What I’m afraid of,” Ensley said, “is someone taking the opposite view of what I take: ‘We don’t need you permission. You don’t even address it in your zoning ordinance that was written in 1991. Good ahead and try to stop us.’”

So, even with wind farms allowed as a special exception, county officials feel a bit more comfortable about the issue.

“It’s an avenue,” Plan Commission member David Berry, also a county commissioner, said. “It’s not saying it’s going to be granted. This is an avenue by which it can be approached.”

The wind farms decision stalled briefly as members discussed a new zoning ordinance that was proposed but never passed in 2009. Both wind farms and a potential change to Agriculture 1 development standards (see sidebar) will be addressed if the commission looks into revising the entire ordinance.

In this case, though, the commission decided that a “band-aid” to address an issue that looms on the horizon is better than waiting a year or more to possibly get an entirely new zoning ordinance.

“I look at this (a new zoning ordinance) as probably a year out, at least,” commission member Randy Bee said. “I think we need something for now, as a band-aid.”

With that, Bee made a motion to allow wind energy conversion systems as a special exception in all zones. Jill Bridgewater seconded the motion.

The resolution passed 8-0 with additional affirmative votes from David Penturf, Kevin Scobee, Berry, Wendell Underwood, Jenna Nees and Ken Heeke, in his first meeting as a member of the Plan Commission. Eric Hayman was absent on Thursday.

The matter will have to be advertised so the commissioners can hold a public hearing on the matter before passage. Ensley will advertise it for the Monday, May 6 commissioners meeting.

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