Board of Supervisors Meeting Date:

Planning Commission 

September 10, 2009

Staff Lead:


 Andrew Hushour, Assistant Zoning Administrator 

Community Development



A Zoning Ordinance Text Amendment to Article 2, General Regulations, Article 6, Accessory Uses, and Section 15-300, Definitions, to Establish the Height and Location Requirements for Accessory Wind Energy Systems


Topic Description:

This proposed text amendment seeks to establish Zoning Ordinance provisions regarding the use of private, non-commercial wind energy systems, such as windmills or wind turbines.


Requested Action of the Board of Supervisors:

Conduct a public hearing and consider adoption of the attached Ordinance.

Financial Impact Analysis:

No financial impact analysis has been conducted.


Summary Staff Report: 

There has been an increasing interest in the past year, both locally and statewide, in alternative energy sources. At a local level, and especially in rural counties, this idea has most recently manifested itself in the proliferation of wind energy systems such as small wind turbines, or windmills, as a viable independent energy source for personal (i.e., private and/or non-commercial) use. Since these systems are becoming more popular among citizens, local governments statewide have started to consider the land use policy questions that are presented by wind turbines, as well as the regulatory challenges they pose to both the Virginia Uniform Statewide Building Code and local zoning ordinances. Among local governments in Virginia, Rockingham County was the first to implement local zoning regulations for wind energy in 2004; more recently, Halifax County passed zoning ordinance language addressing the use of personal Wind Energy Systems.  Many other jurisdictions are in the process of reviewing the issue (See Attachment 1 for Ordinances/Articles related to other Jurisdictions).

In Fauquier County, staff received several inquiries throughout 2008 regarding individuals seeking to erect wind turbines on their property for personal use and, in October 2008, approved the first two permits for personal windmills in the rural zoning districts. While there is no specific language regarding windmills in the current Zoning Ordinance regulations, the general provisions found in Article 2 and Article 6 do address accessory uses and structures in general terms. As a matter of interpretation, staff relied on language found in Section 2-506 of the Ordinance, which states that “the height limitations of this Ordinance shall not apply to barns, silos, residential chimneys, spires, cupolas, elevator penthouses, domes, flagpoles, birdhouses, flues, monuments, radio towers, television antenna or aerials, water towers, water tanks, transmission towers and cables, smoke stacks, air conditioning units or other similar roof structures and mechanical appurtenances.”  With respect to setbacks, staff relied on the existing location regulations for accessory structures found in Section 6-105, requiring that any structure over seven (7) feet in height meet the required side yard setbacks for the zoning district in which it is located and a rear yard setback equal to the overall height of the structure.  In both cases, the subject properties were located in the Rural Agricultural (RA) District and consist of more than five (5) acres. In addition, both applicants were applying for approval of the same structure, a Skystream windmill that is approximately 54 feet in height, measured from the lowest point of the finished grade to the uppermost projection of the arc of the blades on the turbine itself. Although the minimum side yard setback of the RA District is only 25 feet, in both cases the applicant agreed to staff’s request that the windmills be located a minimum of 55 feet from the side lot lines, which would provide a setback ratio of 1 foot for every 1 foot of height of the structure.

During the review of the two permits for private windmills that were approved in October 2008, staff identified the height and setbacks of the proposed structures as being the primary areas for concern. Given the interest in the application of these systems for private use and anticipating their more frequent application as a viable alternative energy source for citizens, staff has determined that a more comprehensive set of Ordinance provisions is warranted at this time to address wind energy systems that provide power for on-site users.

Staff would note that commercial Wind Energy Systems (i.e., systems installed for the purpose of generating power for sale) are currently being regulated under existing Zoning Ordinance provisions for public utilities (Category 20) and require special exception approval.   This text amendment makes no changes to these larger-scale types of facilities.

Proposed Amendment

The proposed text amendment would specifically establish on-site Wind Energy Systems as a permitted accessory use in Section 6-102.32, with specific limitations as further set forth in the proposed text.  The provisions establish lot size, setback, design, and maintenance standards related to such systems, as well as approval procedures.   For additional background information, staff provided two detailed documents with additional technical information as well as a review of local ordinances with the previous staff report dated May 14, 2009: A Guide for State and Local Governments prepared by the American Wind Association and published in September 2008 and Local Ordinances to Regulate Wind Energy Projects prepared by John D. Hutchinson V of the Jennings Gap Partnership for the Shenandoah Valley Network and Rockingham Community Alliance in February 2009.


The text amendment is intended to address wind energy systems that are utilized for the generation of utility power for private consumption, as opposed to generation of utility power for commercial sale. The proposed definition makes it clear that the systems are for on-site consumption while still maintaining flexibility for net metering, or the selling of excess power back to a utility company: 

Wind Energy System: A wind energy conversion system consisting of a wind turbine, a tower and associated control or conversion electronics.   A system is considered an On-Site Wind Energy System only if it supplies electrical power solely for on-site use, except that when a parcel on which the system is installed also receives electrical power supplied by a utility company, excess electrical power generated and not presently needed for on-site use may be used by the utility company (i.e., net metering).

Permitted Zoning Districts

The proposed amendment limits on-site wind energy systems to the RA/Rural Agricultural and RC/Rural Conservation Districts.  

Lot Size and Setbacks

Staff originally drafted amendment language that limited wind energy systems to rurally zoned parcels containing a minimum of five acres. The intent was to discourage the use of such systems on smaller parcels where they may have increased impact on neighboring properties.  However, after some discussion with the Planning Commission, there was consensus that a setback requirement provided better protection than a lot size requirement, as the location of the facility on the lot would determine its impact on adjoining properties.  Therefore, the 5-acre minimum lot requirement was eliminated from the draft regulations as proposed by the Planning Commission.

The proposed setbacks are to be based on the proposed height of the overall structure.  The original setback proposed by staff was one foot for each foot of height.  However, based on discussion at the work sessions, the Planning Commission recommended additional setbacks to protect the surrounding community from potentially negative impacts of the use.    The provisions now contain a setback requirement from the property line of 110 percent of the height of the structure plus an additional setback requirement from existing residential units on adjoining properties of 150 percent of the height of the structure.  A waiver provision has been included for the 150 percent setback from a residential unit, based upon written consent and recordation of an easement from the affected adjacent property owner.   The waiver provision is based on that utilized in Rockingham County.


The majority of the local governments with existing standards for personal Wind Energy Systems do regulate height in some manner. Specific examples include:



Height Limit

Clarke County

Allowed by-right up to 100 feet, maximum 2 units.

More units with special permit.

Halifax County

No height limit specified, but none allowed without special permit.

Highland County

Height limit of the Zoning District, greater height allowed with special permit.

Pulaski County

60 feet, with special permit (~70-80’ with turbine).

Rockingham County

65 feet on lots 1-5 acres, with special permit (~75-85’ w/turbine) and up to 80 feet on lots >5 acres, with special permit (~90-100’ w/turbine).

Rockbridge County

No height limit specified, but none allowed without special permit.

City of Suffolk

120 feet for a small system (output of 25kW or less) by-right and 250 feet for a large system (output of 26kW up to 999 kW) with a conditional use permit.

The review of other jurisdictions shows that regulations vary significantly, from allowing no systems, regardless of height, up to as high as 120 feet by-right or 240 feet with a special permit. The text amendment proposed by the Planning Commission includes a maximum by-right height limit of 80 feet, which is consistent with the by-right height of telecommunication towers in Article 11 of the Zoning Ordinance.  Staff has further researched the issue of height based on several questions posed by the Board of Supervisors during the May 14, 2009 public hearing. Specifically, the Board requested information relating to the performance and cost of systems, and how those factors are related to increases, or decreases for that matter, in overall structure height.

Generally, wind speeds increase with height, so it is logical that a wind energy system could produce more power at a greater height. Conversely, overall wind speed decreases as you move closer to the ground, and a system that is closer to the ground will receive more turbulence and will operate inefficiently. As previously described to the Board, a general ‘rule of thumb’ established by the American Wind Energy Association, and widely used by both local governments and industry related groups, is that the entire turbine itself must be a minimum of 30 feet above anything within 500 feet of the tower or the local tree line, whichever is greater. Since the turbine itself can be as large as 10-20 feet in diameter for a small wind energy system, this means the total height of the tower must be 40 feet above obstructions to be effective.

According to Department of Energy information on small wind energy systems, relatively small consumer investments in increased tower height can yield high rates of return in terms of performance. For example, to raise a 60 foot tower to 100 feet in height would require approximately a 10% increase in system cost but would produce nearly 29% more power in optimal conditions. Similarly, most studies show that even small increases in height can yield very high rates of return as far as performance. This is worth noting since small wind turbines are not particularly efficient in capturing energy from wind over an extended period of time; even with optimal siting conditions and increased height, only about 30% of the energy from annual wind speeds will be captured. As such, it would be beneficial for homeowners over the long term to opt for a slightly more expensive system, at the maximum height allowed by-right. That being said, staff believes that the industry standard described above is absolutely appropriate and that by siting a system below the standard would make it significantly inefficient and, ultimately, could make the technology undesirable from the public’s standpoint.

Additional review of many of the small energy systems available for purchase suggests that a height of 70-80 feet to the top of the blade is the typical height, which assumes that the system is adjacent to a home and tree line no more than 30 feet in height.  Typical house height is often slightly more (the maximum allowed by-right in all residential districts in Fauquier is 35 feet), and while the height of tree lines varies substantially from site to site, it is not unusual to find tree stands more than 30 feet in height. For these reasons, an 80 foot by-right height limit was proposed by the Planning Commission.  As an alternative approach, the Planning Commission also included language that will allow an applicant to erect a system up to 100 feet in height with a special permit.  This would allow such proposals to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, taking into consideration the constraints of a particular property that may necessitate a greater tower height, and allowing the BZA to mitigate potential impacts that result from an increase in height.

Visual Impacts

While the issue of visibility is based primarily on the height of a wind energy system, several other factors do contribute to its visual impact. As originally drafted, staff has included several other provisions into the text language aimed at reducing the visible obtrusiveness of wind energy systems. 

Tower Type

There are three typical types of towers utilized for most wind energy systems:  guyed towers, lattice towers, and monopoles. According to industry sources, the lattice tower is the least expensive alternative for most systems, but the most utilized is the guyed tower, in part because these can be raised and lowered with a winch for maintenance. 


     Guyed Tower (being raised)                   Lattice Tower                            Monopole 

Staff is recommending that only guyed and monopole towers be allowed in cases where the tower is visible from adjoining property or the public street and/or public places, in order to reduce visual impact. 


A provision regulating the color of wind energy systems has also been provided, and this particular issue was specifically identified by a Board member as an area of concern during the May 14, 2009 public hearing. A review of industry information indicates that most systems come in a galvanized steel finish or in an unobtrusive color such as white or gray; this is consistent with the regulatory practices in other communities and was the justification for including similar language in the proposed text language. Staff has also included an alternative that would allow a property owner, with Zoning Administrator approval, to paint the system in order to further blend it into the surrounding environment. However, it may appropriate to further modify this language to include a provision addressing the finish of any metal or painted surface in order to reduce light reflectivity. In addition, the Board may wish to consider language that encourages or requires a broader range of color selections.

Ridge Lines

Also related to the visibility of wind energy systems is the concern that a unit could be placed on a visually prominent steep slope. This is of particular concern since ridgelines typically would provide the best location for wind generation.  For this reason, the Commission recommended at that a ridgeline prohibition be drafted and staff has included this in the draft provisions.

Signage and Lighting

Additional standards are included that prohibit signage and lighting on wind energy systems.

Removal if Abandoned

With respect to the concern regarding the existence of abandoned systems, a provision has been included that will require the removal of any wind energy system that has been abandoned and/or is inoperable for a period of more than twelve (12) months.


The Planning Commission initiated this proposal at its regularly scheduled meeting held on December 10, 2008.  Work sessions and public hearings were held on January 29, 2009, February 26, 2009, and March 26, 2009, with the Planning Commission voting 4-1 in March to recommend approval of the amendment to the Board of Supervisors, with Ms. McCarty voting against because of concerns about height.

The Board of Supervisors held an initial public hearing on the proposed amendment on May 14, 2009.  The Board tabled the item for up to 90 days in order to allow staff the time to further research various questions and issues raised by various Board members during the hearing. At staff’s request, the hearing was deferred an additional 30 days until the September 10, 2009 meeting.


Identify any other Departments, Organizations, or Individuals that would be affected by this request:


All Divisions, Department of Community Development, Fauquier County



Examples of Zoning Ordinance Regulations/Articles on Wind Energy Systems from Other Virginia Jurisdictions


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