More than 100 residents of Garrett County and points well beyond were on hand for a 3-hour public comment meeting hosted by the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) at Southern High School last Thursday evening, Sept. 22. The session was designed to garner public input on an application to the PSC by Annapolis-based Synergics Energy Services to place 17 wind turbines, each reaching a total height of over 400 feet, atop Backbone Mountain at its proposed Roth Rock Wind Facility.
The meeting was opened by Judge David L. Moore, an administrative judge and PSC hearing examiner for over 20 years, who told the assembly that input from the session would be added to the official record and taken into consideration as he made his recommendation to the five-member PSC board of commissioners, which has final say on whether or not to grant Synergics’ application.
Moore also stated that the public comment period, initially slated to close with the meeting, has been extended through Thursday, Oct. 13, for persons who wish to mail their comments to the PSC (contact information appears at the end of this article). Although Moore did not spell out the specifics behind the extension decision beyond saying that “incomplete information published in the local paper” necessitated the extension, the following day PSC spokesperson Beverly Gill said that such extensions are not unusual, and that “the applicant is responsible for submitting the public notices of upcoming hearings.” In this case, Gill said the notice authored by Synergics incorrectly stated that “the state has completed its review” of the company’s application.
A series of evidentiary meetings featuring expert testimony the same day, and earlier in the week in Oakland and downstate, brought the evidence-gathering phase of the PSC’s examination process to a close. Both sides – Synergics and those trying to stop the project – will have one more opportunity to make their points when they submit summary briefs on Wednesday, Nov. 2, and rebutt each others’ briefs the following Wednesday, Nov. 9. The case file on Synergics’ application will close that day, and the PSC’s decision could come shortly thereafter.
Thirty-six citizens went to the podium at Southern High Thursday to publicly share their views with Judge Moore. The overwhelming majority (32) said they were opposed to the Synergics proposal, and two of those speakers read letters authored by persons unable to attend the meeting – also in opposition.
Two pieces of information shared during the hearing by citizen commenters underscored the controversies surrounding the overall issue, as two studies have been undertaken at the federal level to examine the issues generated by wind farms.
Washington, D.C., resident Robin Shane, who said she owns a Kempton area farm that belonged to her granparents, noted that her employer, the National Academy of Sciences, had – at the behest of the U.S. Congress – just convened a 14-member panel of experts to conduct a scientific study of the effects of wind power facilities on the environment. This study will use information gleaned from an examination of wind plants currently standing or proposed for the mid-Atlantic region. The pre-pub-lication report of the committee is due out in December of next year, according to Shane, who asked that the PSC deny Syner-gics’ current application until that report is finalized. The current status of the report is available on the Internet at www.national academies.org. Visitors to the site will need to click on “Current Projects,” and enter “wind” in the search box.
Similarly, Gaithersburg resident and project opponent Elizabeth Olingsky noted that the U.S. Government Accounting Office released a report the previous week that asks for more federal oversight in the regulation of wind plants. The GAO study postulates that local officials don’t have the expertise to evaluate the potential consequenses that could result from the placement of a large-turbine wind facility in their jurisdictions. That report is available at www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-05-906.
Many of the other speakers who expressed their opposition to the Synergics’ proposal identified their affiliation with (or admiration for) the Friends of Backbone Mountain. Jon Boone, that group’s leader, did not speak at the evening session, as he has been delivering his own testimony to the PSC on a regular basis as a registered intervener attempting to derail the project; however, many of the speakers echoed themes he has been sounding for the past several years.
As has been done time and time again in various meetings, letters to the editor, and advertisements, those opposed to the project came at it on a variety of fronts, including potential impacts to birds and bats, the doubts some people have about the economic and electricity-generating efficacy of wind plants, perceived drops in property values, and noise issues.
The theme most commonly sounded at the meeting by project opponents involved what they view as monumental changes Synergics (and by extension, any other proposed wind facilities) would bring to the pastoral character of Backbone Mountain, Pleasant Valley, and the surrounding region’s natural scenery. It was also evident that this line of reasoning is one of the most emotional arguments against the proposal, as several speakers all but choked up as they were delivering their remarks.
Katherine Dubansky, who operates an organic farm and a cross-country ski trail outfitter service in Pleasant Valley, said that her family moved to the area because of the natural setting. “My children love the woods, and we love the Amish country. My daughter cried when I told her that these huge windmills might go up on the ridge, and if we have to look up and see windmills from our home we may move.”
Dubansky’s threat to leave the county was seconded by several other speakers, including attorney Stephan Moylan. “I moved to Pleasant Valley for the view, which has value to me and my family, and value to anyone who would buy my home I don’t plan to sell, but if windmills go up…. We certainly would not have purchased our home if there were 420-foot wind turbines above it. People move here because it’s beautiful, they buy or build houses here because it’s beautiful,” Moylan remarked.
Retired McHenry resident George Falter, himself a transplant (as all but a handful of speakers were) took a different view. “I was initially against wind turbines in Garrett County, but the more I looked at the facts I began to change my mind,” noting that he visited the Meyersdale, Pa., wind facility to make his own personal observations of the noise levels, “and was surprised how quiet they were; they made the same amount of noise as my refrigerator, although it was a different type of noise.
“The impact of wind turbines located next to the Mettiki coal mine is dubious at best, and sprawl in the form of million dollar mansions marching along the county’s ridgelines is more damaging than turbines,” Falter added.
Among the speakers who said they were attracted to the county in order to have second homes were Anne Arundel resident David Garcia, who owns property along Kempton Road. “I purchased a 100-acre farm here to invest in the local economy, and for its peace and quiet,” Garcia said. “For over 100 years people all over the mid-Atlantic have chosen Garrett County for its natural beauty. Wind power is about tax credits, is inefficient and unreliable, will decrease property values and lessen property tax revenue, and cause irreparable damage to the environment. Its cost-benefit ratio leaves me seeing only a cost for the citizens of Garrett County, and benefits only for the wind company’s shareholders.”
A speaker who supported the project was Pleasant Valley farmer John Roth, who farms land along Garrett Highway near Red House while owning an additional 23 acres of unused land atop Backbone Mountain, a parcel that Synergics is considering for placement of several turbines.
“I’ve lived here all my life, and my family goes back a long way,” Roth said. “I would like the wind turbines; they make less noise than motorcycles going up and down Rt. 219 by my house, and I think traffic on the highway kills more animals and birds than turbines would. I also don’t think anyone should be telling me what I can or can’t place on my property.”
Eric Tribbey, a department director at Garrett County Memorial Hospital, read several letters of opposition into the record, one from land developer Troy Gnegy, who owns several tracts of land in the Pleasant Valley area.
Tribbey, who moved to Garrett County as an adult and who resides in Pleasant Valley, also stated on his own behalf, “I believe well-intentioned decisions were made without considering the ripple effect. Now we have neighbor pitted against neighbor, and I will consider suing my neighbors who disturb my life.”
Dr. William Pope, who said he opposed the project on several grounds and asked that Synergics’ application be denied so that additional scientific studies of potential risks (especially to the mourning warbler, which is listed on the state endangered list and is know to nest and breed on a portion of the proposed Synergics site) can be carried out.
Pope, the final speaker of the night, also touched on a highly sensitive topic raised by remarks made earlier in the evening. “This issue involves property rights, and has divided Garrett County residents,” he said. “What you do impacts your neighbors. We all do appreciate the PSC serving as a referee when both sides can get carried away.”
Last Thursday morning, prior to the SHS session, two DNR biologists, Dr. Gwen Brewer and Dan Feller, and a biologist contracted by DNR, Dr. Mark Southerland, delivered sworn testimony during an evidentiary hearing at the Garrett County Health Department. The three said that based on their professional opinions each opposed the Synergics’ application as it currently stands, citing a need for more specific information from the wind company on the specific siting of specific turbines.
Also, when asked by Judge Moore if, based on their personal evaluation, they felt the application should be denied, each said yes, citing potential avian and plant impacts to birds, and the potential of impacts to the county’s heritage.
“Our official position still is that this project needs major modifications,” PPRP director Paul Dunbar said earlier this week. “We’ve been requesting limitations as we’ve been receiving information about this project, and we still believe we need a firm identification of exclusion areas for it to proceed. We’ve requested several more studies that are still forthcoming.”
Persons who would like to add their own comments to the case file record by the Oct. 13 deadline may do so by writing to the Maryland Public Service Commission, 6 South Paul St., Baltimore, MD 21202. All correspondence must reference “PSC Case 9008/Synergics Energy.”
29 September 2005
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