Turbine creates headwinds in Orono

Orono resident Jay Nygard believes installing a small wind turbine in his yard would be an energy saver, but he has run into opposition from the city.

Jay Nygard wants to put up a small wind turbine in his back yard at his Orono home, but the City of Orono has threatened him with criminal penalties if he doesn’t tear up the concrete footing he installed.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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On the shore of Lake Minnetonka, Jay Nygard wants to harness the wind to power his hot tub and crank up his alternative energy business. Yet Nygard's plan to put a small wind turbine in his back yard ran into trouble before the blades began to spin.

The city of Orono has ordered Nygard to stop work on his wind turbine, saying the city's zoning doesn't allow wind generators, and threatened him with criminal prosecution if he ignores the order.

Nygard admits he poured a concrete pad for the turbine after the city rejected his application for a building permit. But he and his attorney claim the city is overstepping its authority and discouraging a homeowner and entrepreneur from helping the environment.

"Here I'm trying to go green and they're trying to throw me in jail," Nygard said.

Nygard's clash with Orono is the latest example of wind energy entrepreneurs prodding local governments to decide what place, if any, wind turbines have within their borders. Cities and towns typically don't confront the question until something like this happens, said Brian Ross of CR Planning, a consultant who helps local governments write wind energy ordinances.

Orono Mayor James White said Nygard should put his energy into petitioning the city for a wind energy policy, not getting into a standoff with inspectors. White said that even though Orono doesn't explicitly ban wind generators in Nygard's neighborhood, the city has broad authority to limit what people build on their property.

"We're not going to discourage people from doing green things," White said. "It's just when and where."

Selling turbines

Nygard, 45, is a stay-at-home dad who's trying to start a business selling home wind turbines. The Taiwanese-made "vertical axis" turbines look more like upside-down egg-beaters than the classic pinwheel-shaped generators. The units stand about 22 feet tall, the blades are 9 feet in diameter and they generate about 1.5 kilowatts. By contrast, the commercial turbines spinning in southwestern Minnesota can rise 400 feet, counting the pole and the blades, and can generate a thousand times more power than Nygard's home generator.

Nygard estimates the turbine will provide about half his home's electricity. But his main purpose is to set up a working model to entice customers to fork over $15,000 for Nygard to install their very own turbine.

Nygard's home is on Rest Point, which juts into Lake Minnetonka and catches the lake breezes. He picked a spot in his back yard between the house and a shed that he thinks would be mostly shielded from his next-door neighbor by a hedge. The blue-and-silver blades would spin just below his rooftop, he said.

"I'm not trying to bring a piece of junk to the city," he said.

Nygard said he tried to work with the city by inviting an inspector to view a small-scale model at his home. But city officials told him to just apply for a building permit. That's what Nygard did. He got the permit application back on Oct. 15, with "Denied" stamped in red ink. The explanation: City ordinances lay out allowable "accessory uses" in his lakeshore district zoning, and a wind generator isn't one of them.

That seemed arbitrary to Nygard and his attorney, Milton Nordmeyer. "You can't just disallow everything," Nordmeyer said.

In fact, city zoning ordinances typically prohibit everything that is not explicitly allowed, said Ross, the planning consultant. Ross said he's aware of some Minnesota municipalities allowing home turbines on an individual basis, but he said local governments are hampered by the lack of a turbine track record. While officials may want to encourage energy self-sufficiency, they have to weigh that against how the units look, what they sound like and whether they actually work, oss said.

The potential of opening the floodgates to all sorts of structures is what concerns White, the Orono mayor. "It doesn't take the brains God gave a goat to find out these things come in all shapes and sizes," he said. White said he recently suggested to the City Council that it should plan for wind turbines. Nygard could petition the council to amend the ordinance, although it's not cheap -- $700 to file a petition, plus reimbursing city staffers for the cost of researching the subject.

Nygard took another tack. Having served on the City Council from 2000 to 2003, and then quitting mid-term after a dispute over his rocky interactions with city staff, Nygard isn't afraid to tussle with the city. He roved around town with his camera, snapping photos of basketball goals, light posts and other poles that he said were allowed without permits or ordinance changes.

"Why do all these people get their poles and I don't get my pole?" he said.

It was Nygard's decision to go ahead and install the concrete platform that really provoked the city. The Nov. 16 stop work order directed Nygard to tear up the concrete and abandon his wind turbine or face prosecution. He was given a deadline of Nov. 24, which was extended to Dec. 1. He said Thursday he would rather pay for a lawyer and fight the city than tear up his concrete.

He can't put up the wind generator, however, because it hasn't yet arrived from Taiwan.

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