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Supervisors approve permit relaxation for wind testing stations

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously February 25 to streamline the permit process for meteorological equipment testing (MET) facilities.

“It’s always a balance,” said Supervisor Dianne Jacob. “The Administrative Permit process still allows a public review process. Specific conditions have to be met.”

The permit relaxations only cover equipment which is used to determine the feasibility of wind turbines and does not affect permit requirements for the wind turbines themselves.

The streamlining does not eliminate county or public review.

“We are only changing the type of discretionary permit required,” said county Department of Planning and Land Use deputy director Jeff Murphy.

A separate motion directed county staff to develop a two-tiered framework for wind turbines themselves.

Unlike the staff recommendation, the motion did not specify a threshold between small and large systems but the proposed change would allow a turbine for agriculture, residential, or small business use by right with limitations to be established for such domestic systems while a commercial wind system would still require a Major Use Permit.

“I think we’ve got to be willing to invest in the future of this region’s energy supplies,” said Supervisor Greg Cox.

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.

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

The need for renewable energy sources led to a proposal to streamline the process for testing equipment.

The Board of Supervisors initially considered the matter September 24.

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 to return to the supervisors within 120 days with such an ordinance amendment.

Public testimony and concern from 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 allowed to 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.

The alternative recommended by county staff and ultimately approved by the supervisors requires a MET facility to meet the main building setbacks as well as meeting height standards from property lines.

Building codes also require existing structures on-site to be separated from the tower or guy wires.

A MET facility must be separated by at least 500 feet from any other MET facility.

A facility would be allowed for three years, although a modification for additional time could be processed if needed.

Notice would be required to all adjacent properties and at least 20 property owners surrounding the facility, and Administrative Permit findings must be made that the projects are compatible with adjoining properties.

“I think it is something that the County of San Diego and residents of the County of San Diego ought to be able to do without paying huge fees,” said Supervisor Bill Horn.

County staff also investigated alternatives for the zoning and permitting of wind turbines themselves and proposed the option for the two-tiered framework.

The threshold between the domestic and commercial systems was proposed to be 50 kilowatts with smaller systems allowed by right with limitations covering height, setbacks, parcel size, and other zoning matters.

The county’s Planning Commission held a December 19 hearing on the proposed ordinance amendments, but a desire for a more comprehensive strategy led to a 3-3 deadlock on any Planning Commission recommendation.

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

“The cost of that in-depth permit can exceed the cost of a system,” said John Gibson of Hamann Companies.

“The process extends dramatically the time it takes to collect data,” said Brit Coupens of Invenergy.

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 county’s Zoning Administrator rather than by the Planning Commission and a hearing for an Administrative Permit takes place only if requested by a member of the public.

“The sole purpose of this scientific monitoring is just to get wind data,” Gibson said. “We use these same types of instrumentation to monitor air quality.”

“The vote today is not to permit the development of a wind farm,” said George Coladonato of Santee. “Your vote today will permit the gathering of this information.”

“Your vote in favor of streamlining the MET process is a vote in favor of small local businesses,” said Valerie Mason of Renewable Strategies. “San Diego County has been blessed with available wind in our own back yard.”

“It makes no sense at all to make it difficult to acquire the data required to make rational decisions,” said William Arvin of the San Diego Renewable Energy Society. “All we’re asking you to do is to make it more feasible to get the data that we need to make rational decisions.”

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.

J.C. Thomas of SDG&E believes that the percentage requirement may be increased in the future. “Renewable energy is important today, even more so in the future,” Thomas said.

“It’s rare that I go against my planning groups,” Jacob said of her support for the proposal.

It was Jacob who recommended addressing the various concerns at the supervisors’ September meeting. “This is a good middle ground,” she said.

“We should allow this to go forward,” Horn said. “It’s a most appropriate first step.”

Jacob also noted that wind energy wasn’t San Diego County’s only source of renewable energy. “I firmly believe we need to do more for solar,” she said. “That would be our ultimate solution.”

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