Baltimore County Studies Wind Turbines

Date: October 21, 2009

The Baltimore County Planning Board is considering proposed amendments to the County's zoning regulations that would permit wind turbines to serve individual residences and small businesses throughout the County. Small scale wind turbines, known as "small wind energy systems", are designed to provide enough electric output to offset the user's demand for electricity from the electrical grid. They are generally not intended to generate electricity for sale off-site.

Under the existing Baltimore County Zoning Regulations, such small wind turbines are regulated as "accessory structures", much like storage sheds, detached garages, or pool houses. Until now, the primary regulatory obstacle to such wind turbines has been the 15 foot height limitation on accessory structures imposed by the zoning regulations. Optimally, wind turbines are designed and sited in a location on the property being served to provide for a vertical clearance of at least 30 feet between the bottom of the turbine blade and the highest wind obstacle within a 500 foot radius. Accordingly, a 15 foot height limitation poses a significant regulatory impediment to these wind turbines. For the past several years, Baltimore County has dealt with this issue by requiring property owners seeking to install wind turbines to obtain zoning variances from these regulations. These variances are costly and time consuming, and expose the owner to opposition from his neighbors and potentially to even more costly and time consuming appeals by opposing parties to the Board of Appeals and the Courts. Several wind turbine variances in Baltimore County have been appealed to the Courts by neighbors and community groups.

The Baltimore County Planning Board is considering a proposal that would eliminate the need for zoning variances for most small wind energy systems and allow these systems anywhere in the county, subject to certain requirements for setbacks, lot size, and other design particulars of the wind turbine itself. The proposal under consideration was prepared by the Baltimore County Office of Planning and was designed with four primary goals: safety, limitation of visual impacts, limitation of noise impacts, and limitation of property value impacts on adjacent properties. The proposed regulations would allow a wind turbine to have maximum height of 150 feet, but would require a setback of 110% of the height from all roads, above ground electrical lines, and property lines. For example, a 50 foot tall wind turbine would be required to be setback 55 feet from all roads, electric lines, and property lines. The minimum lot size on which a wind turbine would be allowed would be 1 acre. Special approval would be required for wind turbines near certain historic resources and near county-designated scenic routes. The proposed regulations also contain provisions related to lighting, color, and finish of the turbine, as well as signage, access, and noise emanating from the turbine.

The Wind Turbine Subcommittee of the Baltimore County Planning Board has held two hearings on the proposed regulations. The first hearing was a technical presentation intended to educate the subcommittee on small wind energy systems, at which representatives from the Maryland Energy Administration, BGE, and a small wind energy system installer testified. The subcommittee also conducted a public hearing at which over 20 county residents expressed their opinions on the use of small wind energy systems in the County. Of the people that testified, approximately 50 percent were in favor of allowing such systems, and 50 percent were opposed, based primarily on such factors as aesthetics, noise, and safety.

The Wind Turbine Subcommittee will make a formal proposal to the full Planning Board, which will conduct further public hearings. Ultimately the Planning Board will make a recommendation to the Baltimore County Council, which has the final decision making authority on the Baltimore County Zoning Regulations.