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Wisconsin Supreme Court Tosses Local Noise Limit on Windfarms

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In a startling and far-reaching decision, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has ruled that counties cannot issue “blanket” standards for wind farm development, but must assess each project on a case-by-case basis.  The ruling invalidated one of the nation’s most precautionary local ordinances, passed in 2008 by Calumet County, but also undermines the logic behind any uniform standard for wind farm regulation.  The Calumet County ordinance adopted an “audible sound” standard as well as an 1800-foot setback (though the Supreme Court ruling would apparently not allow either approach).  The audible noise standard would, in most cases, have been the more stringent limit, as it allowed only a maximum of 5dB above the background ambient sound level at the quietest time of day or night; it is likely that night-time ambient noise is in the range of 25-35dB.  This sort of standard is designed to assure that the wind farms do not appreciably change the character of the local soundscape, and will not become the loudest sound at any neighboring houses. In practice, the audible noise standard used would likely create difficulties in siting turbines closer than about a mile from most homes.  By contrast, industry proponents generally favor a 1000 or 1500-foot setback, or a noise limit of 45-55dB. (Note: half-mile setbacks are becoming more common, and recently an Australian shire joined other localities around the world in adopting a 2km setback, which equates to just over a mile.) At the time the ordinance was issued, industry spokesman responded that it would trigger the “war to end all wars” over wind development regulations; the recent ruling comes as the Wisconsin state legislature is working to adopt state-wide standards for wind development.  For more info, you can read several articles covering the recent ruling, this article covering the adoption of the ordinance, or see the ordinance itself.

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