By Nancy Lindsey
The Patrick County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 Monday to enact a temporary ordinance prohibiting the construction of structures more than 100 feet tall, with a six-month “sunset clause.”
According to the motion made by Peters Creek District Supervisor David Young, the board will make a decision at the end of the six months on whether to adopt a permanent ordinance banning “tall structures,” based on the results of a public opinion survey to be mailed to owners of real estate in Patrick County.
The survey, which will be mailed by the county treasurer’s office along with real estate tax tickets, asks recipients if they support the proposed policy: “No structure shall be built in Patrick County more than 100 feet high, except a structure built solely for telecommunications purposes and except a structure built as a steeple or tower for a place of religious worship.”
The notice that will accompany tax statements says the survey is voluntary and “may be returned in the enclosed envelope along with your tax payment.” The survey response must be postmarked or received in the treasurer’s office by Dec. 1, 2006.
The board’s vote to send the surveys followed a lengthy and often heated discussion on the topic of industrial wind turbines.
During the public comment period at the beginning of the board’s September meeting, several people spoke out against the installation of the turbines in Patrick County.
Gary Johnson, a representative of the Blue Ridge Parkway, said the majority of people who visit the parkway come to see the Appalachian Mountains. If the parkway views change, those tourists won’t stop visiting the parkway, but they will “stop going to places where the views change,” he said. “It’s really an economic decision,” Johnson said.
Steve Sims said he has lived in Patrick County 25 years and moved here because of the beauty of the mountains and peaceful lifestyle. He said the argument that wind turbines would not require the taking of private property by eminent domain is not true, because the turbines would have to be connected to power lines to distribute energy, and the power company would use eminent domain to take land for the power lines.
Sims suggested that the board “put this to a vote. Bring it up at the next election and let the people decide.”
Dan River District Supervisor Jonathan Large said County Attorney Eric Monday had said a referendum couldn’t be held at the same time as the general election, but could be held if the county was willing to pay all the costs of an election.
Scott Eutsler, a member of SOAR (Save Our Appalachian Ridges), said the board had had the opportunity to get information about the “negative effects of wind turbines,” and urged the supervisors to vote on a permanent ordinance.
Eutsler also presented petitions to the board containing more than 1,000 signatures of Patrick County residents, and pointed out the recent survey by the Patrick County Chamber of Commerce that showed 81% of respondents did not favor wind turbines.
“We ask you to do what you can to protect Patrick County and its citizens,” Eutsler said.
Later in the meeting, County Administrator Regena Handy reminded the board that it needed to decide whether to renew the temporary 60-day ordinance banning tall structures, which will expire Oct. 8.
Mayo River District Supervisor Danny Foley made a motion to advertise for a public hearing on a permanent ordinance banning tall structures. Large seconded the motion.
Blue Ridge District Supervisor Roger Martin said he had been contacted by “a bunch of landowners” who were “adamant in wanting their private property rights protected under the fifth, tenth, and 14th amendments to the Constitution.”
The people he talked to said the ordinance should fail rather than be upheld for the “selfish desires of a few,” Martin said. He said people today don’t have the proper respect for the Constitution and Bill of Rights enacted more than 200 years ago.
Martin said every person on the board of supervisors took an oath to protect the Constitution. “You ought to have the personal honesty and character” to uphold that oath, Martin said, “and if not, the opinion of all the people I contacted is that you ought not be on this board.”
Members of the board are “upholding the desires of a few not to see something they don’t like in contravention of the rights of those who own the land,” Martin said. “I don’t believe the county has any business entering into something like this. It should be done by the Congress or state or some other group.”
Martin said if the board adopts an ordinance prohibiting wind turbines, there would be a legal battle and the taxpayers would pay the costs.
“Once again, you have insulted myself and the other board members, saying we don’t uphold our oaths of office,” Large said to Martin.
“You don’t,” Martin said.
“Are you willing to spend money to let the taxpayers decide?” Large asked.
“You’re abrogating your responsibility,” Martin said.
“You and I agreed to disagree, but you don’t have to be insulting to myself and the other board members,” Large said.
Martin called for the vote on the motion by Foley. Foley and Large voted for it, and Smith River District Supervisor Crystal Harris said she was not sure what the motion was.
Young said he’d rather see the issue decided by referendum, and Harris agreed and voted no.
“The motion is rejected,” Martin said.
Large made a motion to send the question to a referendum on whether to ban structure above 100 feet, seconded by Harris.
After more discussion, the board agreed to exempt cell towers and church steeples over 100 feet high.
Monday said the vote could not be a true referendum, because state code does not allow localities to hold them except on limited issues. The board could hold a referendum, but it could not be binding, he said: “The decision is ultimately yours.”
Monday added that the board could not hold a referendum on the same day as the general election, could not use voting machines or other property of the Electoral Board, and could not use poll workers unless they volunteer.
“Couldn’t we also place a ballot and self-addressed stamped envelope in with everyone’s real estate tax ticket?” Young asked.
Monday said it would be hard logistically to do the survey by Oct. 8, when the current ordinance expires, and he also said he couldn’t promise to defend a fourth extension of an emergency ordinance.
Young said he was proposing enacting another 60-day ordinance and polling through tax tickets, which would be due Dec. 5.
He said he had gotten calls from two landowners who were opposed to the board’s enacting a permanent ban. He said he told them they should have been writing letters to the editor or talking to the board, instead of calling him “at the last minute.”
Young said he thought the board members would hear from many landowners if they conducted a survey.
“I’d like to say something,” Harris said. “Everybody has given me an opinion, but I’ve been quiet and listened to each opinion. I’ve been told I do what Mr. Martin tells me to do, but that’s not true. I do what I’m led to do.”
Harris said she had spoken to “the one person who will guide me, the Lord,” before the meeting.
“I’m not in favor of windmills, but I’m going to hear what the people say. Let the people decide. Let the people in Patrick County show us they don’t want windmills,” Harris said.
Monday pointed out that there is a difference between registered voters and taxpayers. The supervisors agreed to poll real estate owners. Young said people who live outside the county would be allowed to vote, but “they have property and are affected. It’s a good way to get the true polling of opinion.”
After some discussion about the logistics of getting the surveys printed and folded by the time the tax tickets go out, Martin spoke up again.
“Five years ago today, Al-Quaida terrorists hijacked aircraft, attacked this country, did a lot of damage and killed a lot of Americans,” Martin said. “In my opinion, this board is in the process of trying to hijack the Constitution.”
Following a break, Young made the motion that the board enact the six-month tall structures ordinance and then make a decision based on the results of the survey. “At that point the board will be obligated to act based on the returns,” he said.
Harris seconded the motion, and Young and Foley also voted in favor of the motion. Martin voted no.
The board also approved a motion waiving the requirement that bids be obtained for printing and folding the surveys, due to time limitations. Martin cast the only dissenting vote.
When asked if the board planned to survey all registered voters, Martin said, “No, it’s the landowners that will be suffering.”