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Wind Blades: Whoosh Meets Shush

Times Staff Writer

Leslie Latterman says her war against backyard wind turbines began the day she had to scream to be heard over a neighbor’s towering new windmill.

“It sounds like having a B-17 on the runway warming up for takeoff,” said Latterman, who lives in San Bernardino County’s high desert community of Oak Hills.

Latterman and a group of neighbors crusading against residential turbines won a partial victory Tuesday when county supervisors adopted stricter regulations for the beacons of alternative energy.

The county will nearly double the permit fee for wind turbines to $495, to help fund the closer inspection such permits will now require, and give neighbors an opportunity to challenge the applications. The new rules, scheduled to be formally adopted Dec. 20, bring the county closer to requirements in Los Angeles, Riverside, Kern and San Diego counties.

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Board Chairman Bill Postmus, whose district includes the High Desert, was the sole dissenter, saying the ordinance gave the county too much discretion in deciding which residents could benefit from wind energy.

“I think this will create a situation of pitting neighbor against neighbor even more,” Postmus said.

Turbine salesman Joe Guasti, who has two of the devices in his Oak Hills yard, battled the proposed ordinance along with other advocates. They argued that the devices were quiet and environmentally friendly, and that the rules would discourage residents from using the renewable energy source.

“What we have is a problem of being shortsighted in our vision. When the energy crisis comes, we are going to be scrambling as fast as we can to mitigate it,” said Guasti, who vowed to continue fighting the ordinance.

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The High Desert wind war was inadvertently launched by state efforts to encourage use of renewable energy. In 1998, California launched a sliding-scale rebate program for residents who use wind, solar or fuel cell energy. The program attracted 8,500 applicants for wind turbines alone in fiscal year 2003-04, according to the California Energy Commission.

About 1% of the energy generated in the state comes from wind, although most of that comes from wind farms.

San Bernardino County updated its wind turbine rules in 2002, allowing residents to apply for a building permit -- which doesn’t require neighbors to be notified and costs on average $200 -- to install a turbine.

Los Angeles, San Diego, Riverside and Kern counties have imposed much stricter regulations. They limit the color of wind turbines, require adjacent property owners to be notified in most cases, and their fees are higher. In Los Angeles County, a permit costs more than $1,700.

San Bernardino County officials had assumed that turbines wouldn’t irritate residents living in the vast, windy High Desert, where most of the 80 or so backyard turbines in the county have been built since the 2002 ordinance.

The county allows installation of turbines as tall as 120 feet in some areas and on large parcels.

“Our desert areas have this live-and-let-live attitude, but a few bad projects got people upset,” said Randy Scott, a county planning division chief.

A few turbines sprouted in Oak Hills, a neighborhood at the top of the Cajon Pass, where desert winds often blast through toward Devore and San Bernardino.

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Shawn Fairman, who bought a wind turbine for $25,000, said his electric bills plummeted from $400 to about $150 a month.

“If you hear anything in the desert, it’s the wind; it’s the wind that’s noisy,” he said. “This is free energy going over our heads every day.”

But a reaction to the turbines, in the words of a county planning report, was “dramatic and emotional.”

Turbine opponents called the devices dangerous and deafening, and complained that they blocked scenic views and could lower property values.

One man circulated pictures of a turbine that seemingly stared into his picture window.

An Oak Hills resident, Richard Fernandes, said he installed double-paned windows to help block out the noise.

“When the wind is strong, it’s like an airplane propeller,” Fernandes said. “When you look up, you feel in danger. It’s not what I’d want my grandchildren standing under on a windy day.”

Both sides trekked to two county Planning Commission meetings in the summer and a pair of recent supervisors’ hearings, armed with dueling petitions and photographs.

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In the end, supervisors approved an exemption from the new rules for turbines that are less than 35 feet tall and produce less than 1 kilowatt of power.

The board plans to review the ordinance’s impact after six months.

“It doesn’t help the poor suckers like us,” Latterman said. “We’re stuck with this. But somebody else won’t have to hear the sound blasters.”


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