UPDATE 8:05 p.m.: This story has been corrected to include the right address of the property to be leased from landowner Sam Scarborough, and to reflect the proper per-foot incentive price for the proposed met tower.
A Houston-based energy company would like to figure out if there's enough wind blowing through Alabama to justify building windmills around farmland, so the company is proposing erecting a temporary, 311-foot meteorological tower.
While the town has zoning code that covers wind towers and communications towers, there's no code covering meteorological, or "met," towers.
The ambiguity has delayed a decision by the town board on whether to grant a variance, through what is known as an Incentive Zoning Application, for the tower.
An incentive application involves the company paying an annual fee for the ability to vary from the zoning law.
In this case, EDP Renewables North America, operating as Alabama Ledge Wind Farm, LLC, already agreed to pay a $5-per-foot incentive to construct a tower that exceeds the allowable height.
Over five years, that payment comes to about $18,000.
Town officials think the tower, which will be on land leased from a local farmer, Sam Scarborough, on Gorton Road, should be at least 1,000 feet from Gorton Road.
The current proposed location is 668 feet from Gorton Road.
Using a calculation pulled from the communication tower provisions of the law for setback (the distance from the road), the town is proposing an additional incentive fee of $20 per foot.
That would drive up the five-year cost of incentives to nearly $50,000.
Jim Muscato, attorney for EDP, thinks that fee is unreasonable and excessive.
"The purpose of incentives on a project is to look at what incentives are necessary to allow the project to go forward and come up with a reasonable accommodation for the impacts associated with the project," Muscato said. "What we're talking about here is a met tower where the associated impacts are fairly modest."
While Muscato believes the 1,000-foot setback, as opposed to a setback that doubles the height of the tower, or 622 feet, is excessive, he said his company is willing to go along with that setback definition if the incentive fee is reasonable. He would like the board to propose a reasonable incentive fee.
Town Board Member Kevin Fisher suggested that $20 might be reasonable, but he doesn't have an enough information to know at this point. He doesn't know what the market price might be, and he doesn't know how much of an impact the tower might have on town residents. He hasn't heard from constituents enough to know.
"I don’t think it’s fair to us to say, 'You guys should accept it because you don't have met tower regulations or zoning laws,' " Fisher said. "We didn’t have any reason for any of this stuff until you walked in the door."
Ronald Gilbert, planning board chairman, was in the audience and he reminded the board that some years ago, EDP, operating then as Horizon Energy, proposed a wind farm in Alabama, which is how the current zoning code came to be written, and it was Horizon officials who said then no zoning code covering met towers was necessary because a met tower wouldn't be part of the wind farm.
Town Attorney Mark Boylan said the conversation made him a little uncomfortable because the town is looking at establishing a requirement for incentives based on two sections of zoning code that do not deal directly with met towers. That introduces an element of an arbitrary decision.
When he hears the other attorney, he said, using words such as arbitrary and reasonable and unreasonable and he's offering a compromise, then, Boylan, said he's concerned about the potential for litigation if the applicant finds the board's decision unacceptable.
Muscato said he doesn't mean to imply his client is contemplating litigation, but then added, "I think what a court is going to assess is that a $50,000 payment over five years of a permit is either not calculable or reasonable or whether it is considered arbitrary. Even if we can't get past the thousand feet or two times the height, we're willing to talk about a more reasonable calculation that would be reasonable for what an incentive payment for a setback would be."
The town board tabled the zoning incentive application so more research can be done and they can put more thought into the request. It will be taken up again at the January meeting.
Only two residents turned out for the public hearing portion of the meeting, David Bencic and Randy Chalmers.
Bencic delivered a page-and-a-half statement that raised questions and concerns about any future wind farm in the area. Many of his questions were answered in the course of his presentation.
Chalmers' statement was much shorter.
"I'm really kind of against them (wind turbines), if you want to know my opinion," Chalmers said. "That's all I've got to say."