*Updated below with comment from Burlington Planning and Zoning Director David White and photos*
File this one under "alternative energy vs. historic preservation."
Russ Scully (pictured, at left) installed the small wind turbine on his surf-themed restaurant, The Spot, to power his kitchen appliances and make a statement about renewable energy.
But Burlington city planners say the turbine is historically out of character on the gas-station-turned-café. In their estimation, it breaks the terms of his permit — and have slapped him with a violation notice that he is now appealing.
Scully won approval to erect the Honeywell-made turbine last year based on drawings of an early design. The turbine he installed was a newer model and came with "fins" that keep the turbine pointed into the wind to maximize energy production. City planners say the fins violate conditions of Scully’s approval and must be removed. Planners also cited The Spot for failing to to meet another condition of approval: that the sweeping, bat-wing-style canopy (pictured below the turbine) be "open" where the metal truss goes through it.
Scully and his contractor, Mike Gervais of Williston-based renewable energy company Yellow Brick LLC (pictured, at right), admit they should have secured necessary approvals for the fins but have appealed to the Development Review Board to keep them on.
In a 30-page report on the matter, planning staff recommend denial of The Spot's appeal. Associate planner Mary O’Neil writes that the former Phillips Service Station, built in 1964, is a rare and excellent example of space-age, "exaggerated modern" roadside architecture that has been listed on the Vermont State Register of Historic Resources. The addition of the fins "detracts from the public’s ability to appreciate and understand the building," O'Neil's report says. While some may view the turbine as evidence of Burlington’s "fertile atmosphere" for alternative energy, O’Neil writes that having the turbine "immediately roadside and atop a historic building component is not ideal."
A longtime surfer, Scully’s passion is wind sports (wind surfing, kite boarding), and he wants the restaurant to harness as much power as possible from wind. "You’d be surprised how much juice a toaster can suck up," he says. "If we can capture some of that back, our margin will improve."
The turbine, a Honeywell WT 6500, is a blade-tip production system, meaning its power is generated by the spinning blades, rather than the spinning hub. The 2.7-kilowatt turbine went up in December 2010 and generates enough juice to power a drink cooler (pictured) and all of the restaurant's outdoor lighting. The Spot also has an 8-kilowatt solar-panel system on its roof. Because that system is net metered — meaning excess electricity is fed back into the grid — it went through a state permitting process and did not require city approvals.
In researching their appeal, Gervais said he found several historical examples of converted gas stations with bat-wing canopies that had "gaudy" signs sticking out the top — for Krispy Kreme, Oil n' Go and other businesses. By comparison, Gervais argues that The Spot's wind turbine is relatively innocuous and may even make people take notice of the bat wing when they otherwise would not have.
Scully adds: "It has eye-catching benefits that it didn't have before."
City planning staff disagree.
"The addition of the directional fins on the wind turbine significantly alter the appearance of the most prominent feature of this historic building, making it difficult for the public to make the visual connection between the appearance of historic signage and the new turbine, as was the submitted purpose," writes O'Neil in the staff report. "The turbine as installed does not read as a substitute component for the original signage, but is a detractor from the merits of the building."
The Spot's appeal will be heard at the Development Review Board's May 3 meeting.
David White, Burlington's director of Planning and Zoning, explains why the city planning staff and the Design Advisory Board oppose the turbine with the fins attached.
"The design of that windmill was very different than what the DAB had recommended and staff had ultimately approved as part of their original permit," he tells Blurt. "The windmill that was being proposed looked nothing like what's there today. It was much finer, in terms of its appearance. It was less obtrusive."
(Ed. note: Judge for yourself. Pictured below are the original conceptual drawing The Spot submitted to the city, and a picture of the turbine as it appears now.)
Structurally, White says he has concerns about how vibrations from the turbine could affect the canopy. White says staff and DAB members also question whether the turbine qualifies as "advertising" under the zoning ordinance.
"The ordinance is pretty restrictive when it comes to advertising features," White says. "And this comes up because the applicant holds the franchise to sell these devices. Particularly, advertising features next to the road — we're very restrictive about anything that moves and is distracting to the driver."
White insists that City Hall, the zoning ordinance and Burlington's master plan are all pro-renewable energy. He suggests there are other ways to keep turbines pointed into the wind that would be more agreeable to the city than the fins. But he adds, "It's got to be the right thing in the right place. It needs to be in a location where it functions best. And that's what's going to drive our decision making. When it's primary purpose is to attract attention and generate conversation, it becomes a little bit of a different issue and that's not as important here.
"These things aren't just quirky and fun to look at," White says. "They actually serve a valuable purpose to our community and our society."
If the Development Review Board denies The Spot's appeal on May 3, White says the restaurant will have two options: install a wind turbine that "meets conditions of their permit" or appeal to Environmental Court. Later in the same conversation, however, White said that if The Spot agreed to take the fins down, city planning staff would likely endorse dropping the violation notice and letting the turbine remain in place.
Have your say. The DRB hears The Spot's appeal on May 3 at 5:30 in Contois Auditorium at Burlington City Hall — and public comments are welcome at the meeting.