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Planning Commission deadlocks on wind testing recommendation

The county’s Planning Commission considered various county Department of Planning and Land Use staff proposals to streamline the permit process for meteorological equipment testing (MET) facilities but deadlocked on a recommendation to the San Diego County Board of Supervisors.

Commissioners Adam Day, David Kreitzer, and David Pallinger voted in favor of a recommendation to reduce the current Major Use Permit requirement to an Administrative Permit; commissioners Michael Beck, Leon Brooks, and John Riess voted against the recommendation; and commissioner Bryan Woods was absent from the December 19 meeting.

“I feel strongly that something is missing here,” Beck said. “I think this is a piecemeal approach to addressing this comprehensive problem.”

The recommendation concerned testing equipment which is used to determine the feasibility of wind turbines, but the current permit streamlining consideration would not affect permit requirements for wind turbines themselves.

Although the Planning Commission itself can decide a Major Use Permit application (that decision can then be appealed to the Board of Supervisors), the supervisors have jurisdiction over all Zoning Ordinance amendments and the Planning Commission’s vote would have been a recommendation regardless of the outcome.

“Some of the issues are interim,” Pallinger said. “In the meantime the Board’s asked us for direction.”

When the Board of Supervisors held a September 24 hearing, the initial recommendation was to direct county staff to require an Administrative Permit rather than a Major Use Permit for the installation of temporary testing equipment and return to the supervisors within 120 days.

Public testimony and concern of members of the Board of Supervisors led to the revised recommendation to direct county staff to return to the supervisors within 120 days with recommendations on possible permit relaxation for testing stations and private systems not used to sell energy.

The supervisors requested that the review include stipulations regarding height requirements, the number of testing poles which can be placed on one property, the maximum density of the poles, setback requirements, and the duration of the time the temporary poles would be allowed to remain.

Before a wind turbine is installed, temporary test poles with measuring equipment are erected to determine whether a site is viable for future wind energy generation.

Currently the County of San Diego requires a Major Use Permit not only for a commercial wind generation facility itself but also for the installation of temporary wind turbine testing equipment.

The cost of a Major Use Permit can exceed $100,000 and the process can take two years or longer.

An Administrative Permit would require Department of Planning and Land Use review and would still allow for a public review process, but an initial hearing would be held by the Zoning Administrator rather than the Planning Commission and a hearing for an Administrative Permit takes place only if requested by a member of the public.

More than 800 megawatts of wind energy from various providers have been proposed in East County.

“Our community is currently under assault,” said Boulevard Community Planning Group chair Donna Tisdale. “This is not what we want to see for our community.”

Tisdale noted that impacts from wind turbines include noise, vibrations, shadows, and thrown blades.

“Wind turbines represent serious and significant fire threats,” she said. “These are very real impacts to our community.”

The Boulevard Community Planning Group opposes relaxation of permits for testing.

“If they’re serious about this, these companies have tons of money; they can pay for a Major Use Permit,” Tisdale said.

“A MET mast is not a wind turbine,” said Mike Stevens, who represented Invenergy. “They’re almost invisible unless you know where to look.”

The testing stations themselves are approximately six inches in diameter.

The testing towers are usually under 60 meters, or 200 feet, since structures exceeding that height require aircraft warning lights under Federal Aviation Administration regulations and would thus require external power.

The turbines themselves often capture wind 80 to 100 meters above the ground.

Because ham radio and television are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, the county’s Zoning Ordinance has an exemption for ham radio towers and television antenna towers which do not exceed 200 feet in height and are for personal use.

Stevens told the Planning Commission that a MET mast is often indistinguishable from a ham radio or television antenna.

Brit Coupens of Invenergy favors a by-right option for testing stations but is willing to support the Administrative Permit requirement.

“This process drastically extends the time it takes to collect data,” he said of the Major Use Permit requirement.

“A Major Use Permit would be a lost opportunity,” said Scott Debenham of Debenham Energy.

Valerie Stuart of Renewable Strategies believes that a streamlined permit can take only a month to obtain and cost in the hundreds rather than the tens of thousands of dollars.

“Wind is not like solar,” she said. “The only thing that really works is testing.”

San Diego Gas & Electric currently provides six percent of its power from renewable resources such as wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, and small hydroelectric facilities, although SDG&E is under a state mandate to generate 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2010.

“This country has been using fossil fuels for 200 years,” said Richard Caputo of the San Diego Renewable Energy Society. “We need to reduce that by 80 percent in 40 years.”

Caputo noted that wind energy, unlike solar energy, can recharge electric cars at night.

“Wind is the perfect energy source,” he said. “It’s one of the few energy sources that actually is available at night.”

Caputo reminded the Planning Commission that the issue before them was testing equipment rather than actual wind turbines.

“We really have to separate getting the wind data from a wind project,” he said.

John Gibson of Hamann Companies noted that Lassen County has found a categorical California Environmental Quality Act exemption for data collection.

Gibson also took exception to the notification process for any discretionary permit, which requires notification of all property owners within 300 feet of the property line of the project’s parcel but also requires notification of at least 20 neighboring parcels.

“They may be five miles away. Does that make sense for the three plastic spoons?” he said. (The “three plastic spoons” refer to the data collection equipment on the testing pole.)

While Beck’s opposition was based on the desire for a comprehensive plan rather than segmented actions, he was willing to support a relaxation of the current permitting requirements for test stations.

“I do support the direction. I do support not requiring an MUP for this particular activity,” he said.

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