21 October 2004

The matter before the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors for discussion at this hearing was an application from Highland New Wind Development for an amendment to the Highland County Zoning Ordinance, which would lift the height restrictions in order to allow the construction of turbines. The wind project itself was not on the table at this time. Following is my report on this meeting, written immediately afterward, with only minor corrections since then.

An application for a zoning amendment and a conditional use permit to allow erection of an industrial wind energy plant on Red Oak Knob and Tamarack Ridge in the northwest corner of Highland County is now before the Board of Supervisors for final action. The Board and the Planning Commission held a joint public hearing on the zoning amendment this evening, 21 October 2004. The Commission voted to pass the amendment on to the Board and then voted to do the same for the conditional use permit, so the Commission is now out of the loop. The Supervisors tabled the applications for further consideration. They have not yet scheduled a public hearing on the conditional use permit.

The agenda for the hearing called for a staff report presented by Roberta Lambert, a presentation by the applicant limited to ten minutes, and comments from the public limited to three minutes each. Those wanting to speak signed up prior to the start of the hearing and indicated whether they favored or opposed the application. Those in favor would speak first followed by those opposed.

Board Chairman Robin Sullenberger opened the hearing by reminding everyone to address only the zoning issue, not the broader question of wind turbines, though he admitted that the two are intertwined so that some discussion of the turbines would be allowed. Roberta read the proposed changes to the ordinance and provided a handout with the exact wording. Attorney John Flora, representing Highland New Wind Development, used only two minutes to present their case. He agreed to Highland County’s alternative language in lieu of the HNWD proposed amendment (see handout).

Robin then announced that no one had signed up to speak in favor so those opposed were given the floor in the order they signed up. Thirty three people spoke, ranging from native Highlanders to long-time residents to relative newcomers to several who recently bought land here with plans to relocate in the future. One gentleman in the last category said that he drove for nine hours in order to participate.

Comments covered practically every conceivable reason to oppose tall structures in general and wind turbines in particular. Most of these have now been summarized in The Recorder.   There were two recurring themes in the statements — one, that the Comprehensive Plan review, which is ongoing, should be allowed to proceed and fully address these issues before any actions are taken, and two, that we should not rush to judgment on anything of such great import to the future of the county, in effect saying that the application should either be denied outright or tabled for further consideration. Sandy Bratton also submitted petitions opposing the project signed by 486 Highland County residents and landowners and 168 other interested persons.

Robin graciously allowed anyone who ran overtime a moment to wrap up his or her remarks and was quite generous in allowing speakers to deviate from the narrow topic of the hearing to the broader issue of wind turbines. Every speaker was courteous and articulate and was given a round of applause. There were no ad hominem attacks. A meeting that could have become contentious and ugly was carried out in a civil manner throughout.

Four of the five Commissioners were present. Chairman David Johnston opened the discussion. Lisa Kodger moved that the application be denied, stating that the zoning ordinance predated any thought of wind power and it had never intended to exempt structures of such size. No one offered a second whereupon Jacob Hevener gave his monologue on property rights, indicating that the planners should not be telling anyone what he could or could not do with his land. Harry Sponaugle then moved a favorable recommendation, seconded by Jacob. The vote on this was 2-2, so the zoning proposal was passed on the Supervisors with no recommendation.

The Board immediately took up the matter. Jerry Rexrode stated that there were too many outstanding questions to take immediate action so he moved to table, seconded by Lee Blagg. The motion carried unanimously and the zoning amendment was laid on the table. I believe they have 60 days to act on this.

The Commission then took up the conditional use permit. Sponaugle moved to pass it to the Board with no recommendation, Hevener seconded. The motion passed 3-1 with Kodger voting no. The Board received the report but took no further action. A public hearing must be scheduled but there is no immediate time limit for that to occur.

So far this has been a factual news report. I am now stepping over to the opinion page. Despite the well-run meeting filled with civil discourse, the result was a travesty of democracy. Letters published in the paper in the months leading up to this meeting ran something like 40-3 in opposition. Speakers at the meeting were 33-0 in opposition and petitions were presented naming well over 600 opposing the project. Even if one allows for some oral comments to officials in favor and discounts those opponents with no family or financial ties to Highland County, the opposition is clearly overwhelming. It is hard for me to see how Jerry can continue to say that for everyone who tells him he is opposed someone else will step up to say he is in favor. It just won’t wash. Given the level of opposition and the nature of the comments made this evening, the only reasonable move was to deny the zoning amendment and refer everything to the Comprehensive Plan committee. On the bright side, while we did not win neither did we lose. The Board of Supervisors has the final say and they have not said it yet, so we live to fight another day. I had hoped to be able to move on to something else but we must persevere. Keep those cards and letters coming!

John R. Sweet, Mustoe, VA

Written comments addressing the matter of a zoning amendment to revise permissible structure heights and/or the matter of the application for a conditional use permit to construct wind turbines may be sent to:
Highland County Board of Supervisors
P. O. Box 130, Monterey, VA 24465-0130

Comments may also be sent by e-mail.
The three members of the Board are Robin Sullenberger, Chairman,
Jerry Rexrode, and Lee Blagg. Roberta Lambert is County Administrator.
Be sure to state that your letter is to become part of the public record.