So it’s come to this.
Highland supervisors are tabling a decision on whether to support a regional tourist trail because of the industrial wind power issue.
As outlined in today’s Recorder, an arm of the Appalachian Regional Commission is asking for a letter of support for its idea to mark a driving trail to connect tourist destinations in the area. But two of three county supervisors are reluctant to send such a letter or, eventually, to commit about $3,000 toward the effort. Board member Jerry Rexrode says it’s the wrong time because the board’s permit approval for a commercial wind energy utility is being challenged in court.
With twisted logic, he argues supporting the trail could jeopardize the county in its legal wrangling with those opposed to the facility, even though he believes a trail could co-exist with the wind turbines. Somehow, he believes, supporting the trail would be used against the county.
Highland New Wind Development’s plans for a 39-megawatt utility are under review by the State Corporation Commission, from which it needs a state certificate to build and operate. Under Rexrode’s argument, opponents could point to the proposed trail as another reason not to grant that certificate.
Maybe they will, and they should. But that’s hardly a good reason not to send the letter advancing the trail proposal.
For one thing, state agencies have already concluded that 400-foot towers with spinning blades atop some of our highest mountain ridges have the potential to detrimentally affect our landscapes, and the tourist draw they create. Agencies have asked for more specific view shed studies to precisely indicate exactly how far the towers could be seen from other areas of the county – a request so far refused by HNWD. Agencies reviewing HNWD’s application have also pointed out the need for further study of the area’s tourism industry, and how it could be financially affected. There has been repeated concern, both from residents and those at the state level, that such a facility could hinder Highland’s growing eco-tourism industry.
This has been one of several potential impacts the SCC will consider in whether it approves the company’s project. It’s hardly a new point of debate. Industrial wind energy opponents who say these behemoths on Highland mountains should be rejected have long pointed out the potential harm to the county’s environment – one of its very few solid, marketable, assets.
As supervisor Robin Sullenberger noted, all ARC asks is for a letter of support to move forward with a feasibility study, and a small sum to help pay for it. The trail project is far from being off the ground, but a show of support from the communities it could affect carries a great deal of weight in securing grant money to construct it.
Supervisors who support the wind facility are talking out of both sides of their mouths. They’ve made the point repeatedly that a wind facility could actually bring tourists to Highland. That was one of the reasons they found to support a project the great majority of their constituents oppose. And now, with an interesting plan to mark the way for visitors, they are pulling back and contradicting their own arguments.
Even if the county can’t afford the $3,000 contribution – a minor investment considering the potential return in tourist dollars to local businesses – it surely could agree the concept merits consideration.
The county board has made inroads toward stimulating our local economy recently, especially by revitalizing the Industrial Development Authority. No matter what may happen in court, it makes little sense to withhold support for projects like the trail proposed by ARC until the wind utility permit issue is resolved. Supervisors should revisit ARC’s request immediately, and at minimum, make some effort to stay in the tourism game. Perhaps it should hand the question over to the IDA for further study, if the board feels more information is needed.
If supervisors believe a tourist trail can be successful despite an wind plant along its path, they surely must be confident they can make that argument in court, or during the SCC’s review. Delaying a decision simply because of the fear it will be used against them makes little sense on the face of it. The board should take up this request again soon, before Highland earns a reputation for being closed to regional efforts. This county cannot afford to work alone and miss these kinds of opportunities.
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