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Wisconsin Country Implements Strict Noise Regulations on Wind Turbines; Company Declares “War to End All Wars”

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Calumet County, in eastern Wisonsin, recently faced a dilemma that is increasingly common in rural America: an outside company had appeared in their region, planning to build wind farms and seeking permits. Many local governmental bodies have taken a cursory look at complex reports submitted by companies, taken assurances of “no noise” at face value, and later regretted not learning more. The Calumet County Board of Supervisors took two years to consider the issue, and in March instituted a carefully considered ordinance to govern wind farm development that is exceedingly (perhaps even excessively) weighted toward protection of local residents from noise impacts. Two requirements are especially striking: a requirement that turbine noise not exceed 5dB over the current background sound levels during the quietest part of the day (night) will assure that turbines will not make any dramatic changes the overall sonic ambience of the rural landscape, and a related requirement that excessive low-frequency noise at any nearby residence will require shut-down of the offending turbine. In addition, when the turbine noise is repetitive (as can occur due to blades passing the tower), or contains pure tones (occasionally caused by mechanical issues), the 5dB requirement is futher reduced to 0dB. Both of these requirements likely far exceed the protections that would be imposed by the setback standard, which is 1800 feet. Midwest Wind Energy, the company planning the wind farm, responded two days later by announcing that these requirements would preclude the development, and that it would expand its plans (combining turbines proposed for several towns and adding a few turbines), so that the project is large enough to become subject to state regulation, superceding the local ordinance. Despite the delays (18 months plus litigation time) and cost ($2 to 4 million dollars), the company said that it is “fully committed to this effort as we now see this as “the war to end all wars” regarding wind power in Wisconsin.” Indeed, even local officials concur that the company likely has the guns to win this war: “It’s just a matter of time,” said Peter Dorn, a member of the county’s Planning, Zoning and Farmland Preservation Committee. “Any time the state government steps in and recognizes its dealing with a big industry, local control is going to end.” Still, there is a sense that local ordinances such as this, and another county which imposed a one-mile setback, could influence state regulators and legislators to give due consideration to local concerns about noise impacts. Sources: Calumet County Press Release, 3/20/08 [READ PRESS RELEASE] [CALUMET COUNTY ORDINANCE] Tri-County News, 3/26/08 [READ ARTICLE] Daily Reporter, 3/18/08 [READ ARTICLE] Midwest Wind Energy Memorandum, 3/20/08 [READ MEMO] Post-Crescent, 3/15/08 [READ ARTICLE]
Ed. note: This is perhaps a prelude of similar debates that are likely to occur as experiences of those closest to wind farms spread to other rural communities; while the specifics of the Calumet County regulations are extreme (though not necessarily inappropriate), it is clear that the laissez-faire attitudes of the past have led to real problems for many people living within a half mile or so of turbines. [See AEI Special Report: Wind Turbine Noise Impacts]

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