The Board of Supervisors requested the IDA to do a study of industrial wind projects in Highland County. This was their first meeting to address that charge. All seven members were present as was County Administrator Roberta Lambert, who distributed an information packet from the supervisors and was available to answer questions. Authority members are:
David Smith, Chairman
Richard Shamrock, Vice Chairman
Cindy Wood, Secretary-Treasurer
About all they did at this meeting was go over the documents Roberta provided and discuss each in turn, some briefly and some in more depth. I will pass over the details of this for the time being in order to get a brief report posted and then come back to it later as time permits. David Smith is clearly in favor of at least some wind development and Richard Shamrock is equally clearly opposed to it. Some other members expressed various opinions and reservations.
After the meeting David sat down with me, Rich Holman, and Ske Ellington for what turned out to be a rather long conversation. I thought it was also quite informative for all of us as we came to understand each others positions on wind and other matters. David does not want to see turbines all over Highland but he seems to feel that we should allow McBride to go forward with his project and then try to map out exactly where else, if anywhere, additional turbines should be allowed. The rest of us feel that McBride should be denied and then, with a clean slate, address the question of where, if anywhere, turbines should be allowed. Once this is done and the issue is clearly covered in our revised comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance, and assuming that those new documents do allow turbines in certain locations, then and only then would it be appropriate for McBride or anyone to apply for a permit to put them there.
The IDA has been requested by the Board of Supervisors to study the pros and cons of industrial wind energy development in Highland County. They first met on 14 February. A list of the IDA members and a synopsis of that meeting appears in the report on the previous meeting, above. This meeting was much more free ranging and was, in fact, the first really open discussion between wind energy advocates and opponents since the issue first surfaced several years ago.
Chairman David Smith opened the meeting by taking note of the substantial volume of material that they have received so far and by announcing that Mr. McBride had offered a site visit to the IDA, much like that taken by the Supervisors last fall. They plan to take such an outing when the weather permits. He then read letters from Rick Webb and Rich Holman and discussed them briefly. Webb is opposed to the HNWD project on the grounds that no meaningful environmental studies are included in the development plan and he feels that proliferation across the county is very likely if HNWD development is approved. He noted a letter from attorney David Bailey stating that HNWD would set a precedent and failing to provide equal treatment to other applicants would expose the county to legal action. Holman stood by the zoning ordinance, noting that industrial development is not a permitted or conditional use in an agricultural zone. A longer letter from Tom Brody was received and will be studied prior to the next meeting and discussed then.
During the discussion of these letters, Smith indicated that he does not expect the IDA to vote or make a specific recommendation on this issue. He feels that it would be a 4-3 or 3-4 vote, which would put too much pressure on the swing voter and would be devisive. He wants to prepare a list of concerns, list pros and cons for each of them, prioritize them to the extent possible, then submit that list to the Supervisors as their report. Smith further stated that the IDA is not considering legal matters but that the Supervisors will have to take the legal ramifications into account while reaching their decision. He agreed with Holman that the zoning map ought to be the gospel and that it should be changed only to reflect actual changes in the neighborhood or if there is a proven error in the map.
Smith then read the list of concerns raised at the previous meeting and asked for comments and additions. Richard Shamrock felt that wind turbines are not mentioned in the Comprehensive Plan or the Zoning Ordinance so the county should not permit any such development until those documents have been revised accordingly. Jim White said we should consider the special attributes of Highland County that do not exist elsewhere and then evaluate the impact of wind development on those attributes. There is a lapse in my notes at this point but Gideon Hiner raised several points including the impacts on adjoining property owners and the value of nearby property, which was also mentioned by Cindy Wood. Austin Shepherd suggested that we should have a referendum on the issue, indicating that there are members of the community who are reticent to speak publicly so their voices are unheard. Olin Sponaugle agreed that we could ask the people what they want but that might not result in what is best for the county. He feels the petitions are meaningless because people will sign anything. He favors wind development and would like to install turbines on his land.
The 20-25 citizens present were fully involved in these discussions. It became slightly unruly a couple of times but was far from getting out of hand. No one impugned anyones character, used foul language or shouted. There were some raised voices and impassioned debate. Everyone got to speak, raise issues and object to others. It was a truly democratic debate in the best sense of that word, something that had been lacking in this process up to now. Chairman Smith is to be congratulated for allowing this to occur and for joining in it with gusto. Some people were frustrated, some probably got mad, but no one was hurt and the frank exchanges were enlightening. It is too bad that none of the supervisors were there to take part.
In my opinion the most frequently raised points were that wind turbines are not mentioned in the comp plan or the zoning ordinance, that industrial development is not a compatible use in an ag district, and that allowing one such development in the face of these facts would set a precedent that would preclude future control of this industry. Other points were that the right to develop ones property should not include the right to devalue nearby properties or damage the lives or livelihoods of ones neighbors and that the economic benefits to the county in the form of tax revenue as well as private economic activity are uncertain and would be small at best. In summary, the majority of those present felt that the issue should be remanded to the committee working on the new comp plan and to the Planning Commission for zoning revisions and that a referendum should be held to accurately gage public sentiment. HNWD should be denied and no new applications should be accepted until these proposed actions are completed. This would allow a complete evaluation of where (if anywhere) and under what conditions wind development would be permitted in Highland County, without first setting precedents.
I believe that Smith agrees with most of this except that he would allow HNWD to go forward, not seeing this as a precedent, on the grounds that they have already made substantial investments in the project. I cannot see how this course would not lead to a proliferation of turbines across the county or legal action against the county or perhaps both. If McBride has invested substantial funds in a project that requires important zoning changes prior to those changes being enacted, then that might be a bad business decision on his part but should not be a factor in the governmental decision-making process.
The next meeting was set for 28 March and this meeting was adjourned at about 9:30. Post-meeting discussions lasted for another hour.
This was the third meeting of the IDA since they were asked by the Supervisors to study the pros and cons of industrial wind energy development in Highland County. They first met on 14 February. A list of the IDA members appears in the report on the first meeting, above. Reports on the previous meetings also appear below. All members were present. County Administrator Roberta Lambert and Supervisor Robin Sullenberger were also present. They sat toward the back and did not participate, aside from Roberta answering one specific question. Robin left at some point during the meeting but Roberta was there for most if not all of it.
Chairman David Smith opened the meeting. Austin Shepherd reported that holding an official referendum on this issue is not permitted under state law. Smith then discussed a letter from attorney David Bailey, which cited the legal basis for saying that it is not possible to permit one project as an exception to the zoning ordinance and then deny others of the same type. Smith said that this is a legal matter and not in the purview of the IDA. It does, however, cut to the heart of the proliferation issue. Smith and others have stated opposition to wind turbines all along Highlands ridges, regardless of what happens with HNWD. Our argument has been that to allow HNWD to proceed is to open the door to future development on Jack Mountain almost certainly and probably on Monterey and Lantz Mountains as well. I believe that, Chairman Smith notwithstanding, the IDA took this issue seriously.
Attention then turned to a list of concerns submitted by Charlotte Stephenson on behalf of Highlanders for Responsible Development, something like 16 points in all, as well as four concluding statements in the letter. The four final points proposed that industrial wind turbines should not be considered until the comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance are revised, the state has ruled on local taxation, the bird and bat mortality issue has been adequately addressed, and the citizens of the county are in substantial agreement on the merits of wind development.
Smith expressed concerns as to how long it will take to revise the comp plan and zoning ordinance, returning to the idea that McBride should not be made to wait that long. He then read a letter from the State Corporation Commission outlining the local taxation issue. It seems clear that wind plants will be subject to local taxation under current law as has been presented at previous meetings. Smith then read from an American Wind Energy Association web site [not exactly an unbiased resource] that bird mortality from wind turbines is less than 1% of the total mortality from anthropogenic causes, citing buildings, vehicles, and domestic cats among other things as being responsible for 99% of bird mortality. It was pointed out that, while this may be true for neighborhood birds, wind turbines will primarily impact migrating birds and raptors, most of which are not subject to predation by cats or impacts with vehicles or buildings but which do selectively fly along ridge lines. Smith more or less sloughed off the final point about citizen approval.
Turning to the 16-point list of concerns, each was addressed with Smith taking the pro-wind side on almost every issue, then asking for comments. Comments were sparse from the IDA members but they generally supported the validity of the concerns. Participation by citizens present was extensive and almost entirely opposed to wind development. I want to again thank Chairman Smith for permitting free and open discussion, as at the previous meeting. Everyone was able to speak his/her mind. Discussion was heated but never pushed the bounds of propriety. I believe it was an educational experience for all involved. I will not attempt to synopsize this long discussion.
At some point in the proceedings Gideon Hiner reported on a letter from the SCC stating that the developer in all instances will be responsible for the expenses of substations and line upgrades needed to serve his project. This is the same information provided to the Pendleton County group by Allegheny Power at a recent meeting. Not addressed directly was the potential cost of stabilizing the system when a highly volatile, non-dispatchable generation source is added to it. This is clearly not much of an issue for one small wind plant but it becomes a serious concern as more and more turbines are connected to the grid.
At the end of this discussion, Austin Shepherd moved to forward the list of pros and cons to the supervisors with the recommendation that the comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance as presently written be adhered to. Richard Shamrock seconded the motion and Cindy Wood spoke in favor of it. The vote was unanimous and the meeting was adjourned. Since the comp plan does not address wind turbines at all and they are neither a permitted nor conditional use in the zoning ordinance, this recommendation is, in effect, a recommendation to deny the HNWD application and to refuse any future wind proposals until these documents have been amended to address the issue. The supervisors asked for this recommendation. If they will now accept it we can all go home and relax. Stay tuned!
John R. Sweet, Mustoe, VA