By Tom Shevlin
NEWPORT – Newport was poised this week to adopt a new zoning ordinance that would limit the presence of wind turbines to only commercial areas.
The vote, which was expected Wednesday, follows months of deliberations, and a special workshop held last week in which city planners formally presented their proposal to the public.
Aimed at governing the installation of residential and commercial-scale wind turbines, the proposal comes almost a year after councilors passed a resolution temporarily halting any new applications for home-based wind turbines and directing city staff to develop a workable ordinance to govern the placement and size of turbines in the future.
The action stemmed from a request by John McNulty, a Fifth Ward resident, to erect a new turbine in his yard on Eastnor Road. (McNulty has had several turbines on his roof since 2008)
After a directive by the council, Planning Board members began working on crafting an amendment that would satisfy the city's need to balance neighborhood interests, while also allowing land owners an avenue for pursuing renewable energy sources.
The end product effectively limits the presence of turbines to the city's industrial zone in the North End and commercial waterfront areas. Areas such as Historic Hill, Point, Fifth Ward, and Ocean Drive, would all prohibit the presence of turbines.
That came as a disappointment to some.
"Turbines are as natural as fishing boats in neighborhoods near the water," said Doug Sabetti, the owner of Newport Solar and a member of the city's Energy and Environment Commission. Noting that turbines are prevalent on both Martha's Vineyard and Block Island, Sabetti suggested that the council leave open the possibility for turbines in certain residential areas such as Ocean Drive.
Beth Milham, also a member of the Energy and Environment Commission, agreed. "In general, we're very happy with the resulting ordinance," she said, however adding, "Newport is a living historical area, not a museum"
Accordingly, she asked that certain areas of the Historic District be included in the ordinance.
While turbines might not be appropriate in The Point or on Bellevue Avenue, she said that they are in keeping with other interior areas on the southern end of town off Ocean Drive, so long as they don't negatively impact quality of life.
Planners, however, saw reason for caution, and in June found the proposed zoning amendment consistent with the city's Comprehensive Plan.
"Upon much public deliberation and due diligence over the course of the previous three months, the board has crafted a proposed zoning amendment that balances the ability of Newport property- owners to construct and maintain wind energy systems while simultaneously protecting the city's historic aesthetic and quality of life," wrote Planning Board Chair James Dring.
According to Dring, board members paid particular attention to ensure that residential scale wind energy systems are allowed "only where the Comprehensive Plan deems them to be appropriate."
Councilors asked few questions of Dring and City Planner Andrew DeIonno during the workshop, with most of the discussion centering around fine-tuning the ordinance and seeking to better understand its restrictions.
Under the ordinance, residential turbines would only be permitted at heights that are in keeping with the scale of single-family homes, and any deviation from the dimensional requirements would require a Special Use Permit from the Newport Zoning Board of Review.
As far as commercial scale wind energy systems are concerned, under the ordinance, they would only allowed in the Commercial Industrial Zone and the Traditional Maritime Zone, and would also require a Special Use Permit. Utility-scale wind turbines like those found in Portsmouth were deemed "inappropriate for a city as densely developed as Newport."
According to Dring, the ordinance was modeled after existing ordinances found in Massachusetts, and would include an annual safety inspection for any turbine erected within the city.
Ben Riggs, who has been a vocal turbine skeptic, questioned whether turbines were truly a public policy issue.
Suggesting that they could have a negative impact on property values and could conflict with the city's noise ordinance, he likened turbines to a backyard pool and argued that wind power has not been established to be any more economical that traditional power sources.
As for McNulty, he also spoke, saying that his turbines have performed well while pledging to maintain them despite the new ordinance.