Newport Severely Restricts Turbine Placement

By KYLE HENCE/ecoRI News contributor

NEWPORT, R.I. — The City Council has voted to ban wind turbines from most of the city. With the recent approval of the wind turbine ordinance, out of 7,872 city lots, commercial-scale wind turbines — between 10 and 100 kilowatts and a maximum of 80 feet high — are permitted on 52 lots, and residential-scale turbines — less than 10 kilowatts and a maximum of 50 feet high — are permitted on 627.

In total there are 679 plots where the ordinance would allow a wind turbine to be installed to produce electricity. However, the ordinance prohibits turbines of any kind or size on 91 percent of city lots, regardless of plot size or energy generating potential. A 100 percent moratorium was in place up until the Dec. 12 passage of the city’s new wind ordinance.

As delineated in the language of the ordinance, property owners are prohibited from erecting small wind turbines anywhere in the city’s historic sections, including the entire southern portion of Newport defined by Ocean Drive.

In an April 9 letter to the City Council, James Dring, the Planning Board chairman, wrote, “The Planning Board regards the local Historic District as an inappropriate location for wind turbines unless the subject property has greater than 40,000 square feet of land areas.” The council, however, ultimately elected to impose a more restrictive ordinance than that originally drafted by the Planning Board.

“It’s extremely restrictive,” said Newport Energy & Environment Commission member Doug Sabetti prior to this week’s vote. “It should be allowed in the historic districts with special use permits.”

During the discussion period opened by Mayor Henry Winthrop, council member Justin McLaughlin defined his guiding philosophy of governance as one in which he endeavored to legislate “for the people” rather than “to the people.”

“This just seems overly restrictive to me,” he said, explaining his feeling that people should be free to do what they want with their own property as long as safety and related concerns are addressed.

McLaughlin further described a scenario in which a storm knocks out power. With a small wind turbine installed homeowners would benefit from electricity generated available to power a refrigerator. Following Hurricane Sandy, the Distributed Wind Energy Association reported (pdf) little or no damage to small wind turbines up and down the hard-hit East Coast.

Mary Reynolds lives in the historic district on Brenton Road. Her 2-year-old home, which includes a geothermal system to save on heating and cooling costs, was built to be as environmentally responsible as possible. However, she wasn’t permitted to install either solar panels or a wind turbine.

“Doesn’t it make sense to embrace alternate energy with climate change crashing down on us? We have investigated vertical wind turbines which are rather unobtrusive. They would be much less of a blight on the landscape then some of the surrounding houses built in an earlier time. It is rather short sighted of Newport to ban vertical wind turbines in this area when it could do so much good,” Reynolds commented on a story after last week’s public workshop.

Small-scale wind turbines, whether vertical or horizontal in design, can also save money. As ecoRI News recently reported, Sabetti surveyed several turbine owners on Aquidneck Island. The owners of Ventura Farm on Mitchells Lane in Middletown have saved about $300 a month on their electrical bill since installing two residential-scale wind turbines.

Following a motion to amend the ordinance by City Council member Kathryn Leonard, the council voted unanimously and without discussion to extend the turbine ban to include the small maritime district between Long Wharf and the Newport Shipyard.

“Newport is known around the world for its historic value,” Leonard said. She expressed concern that turbines installed along the maritime district would threaten the views of the city’s nearby Point Section, part of the Historic District.

The ordinance as presented by the Planning Board, had it passed without the Leonard amendment, would have allowed a commercial-scale turbine, between 10 and 100 kilowatts and 80 feet tall, at either the state fishing pier or the shipyard. The Newport Shipyard routinely refits sailing vessels with masts more than 150 feet high, including many with transom-mounted wind turbines.

During the discussion prior to the final vote, four of the council’s seven members expressed concerns or reservations about the proposed ordinance presented by the Planning Board — McLaughlin, Naomi Neville, Stephen Coyne and Jeanne-Marie Napolitano. At one point, three of them were leaning toward taking up the issue next year. However, when a vote on a motion to postpone or continue was taken, McLaughlin was the lone “yea” vote.

The final vote to approve the wind turbine ordinance was 5-2, with MacLaughlin and Coyne voting against. After the meeting was gaveled close, Napolitano told ecoRI News that she too felt the ordinance was overly restrictive.

Winthrop, for his part, said a few closing words after the vote. “I don’t expect to see many people lining up outside to secure permits to build wind turbines.”