In many ways, the atmosphere is like a gold rush.
With the backing of an enthusiastic Rendell administration, wind-energy companies have quietly but aggressively been negotiating leases for land on mountaintops, especially in Bedford and Somerset counties.
Several developers hope to build hundreds, if not thousands, of windmills on the ridge lines of west-central Pennsylvania. Typical wind turbines stand nearly 375 feet tall – about 70 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty – and can be seen from 15 to 20 miles away.
Some people question whether development of wind energy on this scale is appropriate for Pennsylvania, even though wind often is touted as a renewable, nonpolluting way to generate electricity.
Longtime residents of Somerset County, where the building is more advanced, say the construction and operation of turbines have damaged the environment. They say the development offers little in return from jobs or taxes.
“It’s not quite what they tell you in the brochure,” Todd Hutzell of Rockwood said.
The soft-spoken farmer’s parents and sister live near FPL Energy’s Meyersdale Wind Farm in Somerset County. FPL Energy is owned by Florida Power & Light.
More than 150 people, most of them wind-power opponents, attended a meeting on Sept. 18 in Bedford sponsored by the group Save Our Allegheny Ridges. SOAR is one of several groups in the region opposed to some wind-energy projects. Most say they don’t oppose wind turbines that aren’t on ridgetops.
They spent three hours listening to skeptics tell them about the downsides of wind power. It was half school, half revival meeting. No manifesto or specific plan for action resulted from the meeting.
“We are the ones who will be impacted,” a tearful Beth Anderson of Snake Spring Twp. said. “We won’t get the benefits. I’m very passionate about preserving the life I have here in Bedford County.”
Less visible are people such as Richard Buterbaugh of Bedford, a retired bank employee who went to the meeting to observe. He has a nearly 30-year lease with FPL Energy that will allow the company to build wind turbines on a ridgetop he owns on Evitts Mountain, about seven miles from his home.
Evitts, Brumbaugh and Tussey mountains appear to be the most coveted by wind-energy developers, Bedford County residents said.
Buterbaugh said he is barred by a confidentiality agreement from disclosing how much he will be paid. However, Jeff Kloss, director of the Bedford County Planning Commission, said he believes landowners get as much as $3,000 annually per windmill in rent.
“They don’t want to look at them,” Buterbaugh said of opponents. “So they try to take away my property-owner rights.”
Odd alliances form:
The debate has made for odd alliances.
Environmental groups such as Penn Future in Harrisburg or the international Greenpeace organization – both firm backers of wind energy – find themselves in the same camp as property-rights advocates such as Buterbaugh.
Meanwhile, local anti-windmill groups get no comfort from what might otherwise be an ally, a pro-environment, Democratic administration in Harrisburg.
“This is one of the few utility-scale sources of energy that is clean and stable in price,” said Dan Desmond, deputy secretary for energy and technology development at the state Department of Environmental Protection. “We have to do something. Whether wind is perfect is not the issue. It offers the least environmental impact compared to all the others.”
One objection raised by groups such as SOAR has to do with the clear-cutting of forests to build the turbines. Another issue is the water runoff that follows.
Almost all wind turbines in Pennsylvania are built on ridges because that’s where the wind is. In states such as South Dakota, strong winds sweep the barren plains, and turbines are built there rather than on the Black Hills. Mountains in Pennsylvania are forested, and wind developers don’t like trees.
Benjamin Tresselt Jr., a consulting forester and president of Woodland Owners of the Southern Alleghenies, said during the meeting in Bedford that each wind turbine requires a footprint of 400 by 400 feet, or about four acres. That figure is generally accepted.
“It is totally denuded of all vegetation,” he said, referring to the turbine site. “There is nothing to break the impact of the rain.”
The steeper mountains, such as Tussey, are at particular risk because the soil that covers them gets progressively thinner at higher altitudes, Tresselt said. Vegetation holds the soil in place, allowing it to act as a sponge for rain. Remove it and the soil goes, too, he said.
Access roads also would have to be cut up the side of mountains. Tresselt said he doubted that the wind-energy developers could limit the roads to the 50-foot rights of way they say they will need, predicting that 100 feet is more likely.
Steve Stengel, a spokesman for FPL Energy in Juno Beach, Fla., said the amount of land affected is small.
“Once the construction process is completed, we do replanting,” he said. “Over time, a lot of vegetation that is cleared initially grows back. We have to have access to those turbines for maintenance. We try to minimize any impact, but roads will be built. Clearly, there are trees that will need to be cut down.”
Tresselt questioned how successful any reforestation efforts would be. “What are they going to plant on rock?” he asked.
Some Bedford County farmers are perplexed that wind-energy developers get federal and state subsidies but face little or no conservation regulation in building wind turbines.
“As a farmer, I have to file a conservation plan to get subsidies,” Jim Myer of Napier Twp. said. “They don’t have to do anything.”
Noise is an issue:
Karen Ervin lives with her husband, Steve, a half-mile from the Meyersdale Wind Farm in Somerset County. She talks about the noise.
“It’s been a nuisance ever since they were put up,” she said of the turbines. The intensity “depends on the weather and the season,” she said. “The day before, it was quiet in the morning and loud in the evening. In the winter, we hear them all the time.”
Different people have different reactions to the low-intensity hum. Someone stopping briefly near the Meyersdale turbines might notice a soft whup, whup, whup.
Living near them is different. The Ervins said they moved to a downstairs bedroom from the master bedroom to escape the noise.
“Noise is not an issue at our projects,” said Stengel of FPL Energy. “When the wind is blowing, whether the wind turbine is there or not, the noise is of the wind blowing through the trees. You do have a swishing sound. That is of the wind going through the turbines.”
One of the first wind farms in Pennsylvania opened in 2001 along the Pennsylvania Turnpike near Somerset. Less than a year later, Atlantic Renewables, now a part of PPM Energy, bought the homes of two residents who were greatly bothered by the noise or shadow flicker, the disco-ball-like movement of shadows caused by sun behind the turbine blades.
“It was the right thing to do,” said Sam Enfield of PPM Energy, which is owned by Scottish Power. “Those houses were well within 1,000 feet, far closer than is at all common today.”
Atlantic Renewables paid David R. Sass $104,447 for his house at 322 Beachley Hill Road and then turned around and sold it three months later to Jeffrey A. Ream for $65,000. A clause in the deed required Ream to waive all potential claims for nuisance damages from the turbines.
Ream, who makes garden hoses and nozzles at Gilman Manufacturing in Somerset, said the windmills don’t bother him. “You hear them every now and then, but it’s no big deal to me. You get used to them,” he said.
Efforts to reach Sass for comment were unsuccessful.
Enfield said Atlantic Renewables also bought the house of a person who lived near its Mill Run Wind Farm in Fayette County and resold it at a similar steep discount. He said the resales were arranged privately to related parties and should not be considered indicative of lower property values near wind farms.
Atlantic Renewables has since sold the Somerset and Mill Run wind farms to FPL Energy.
Behind the scenes:
Kloss, the Bedford County Planning Commission director, said agents for the wind-energy development companies were working for 12 to 18 months before he became aware that they were signing leases with property owners on Evitts, Brumbaugh and Tussey mountains.
Bedford County has no requirement that a wind-energy developer file plans with the planning commission. Of the 25 townships and 13 boroughs in the county, only Bedford has zoning.
The state Department of Environmental Protection has no siting regulations for wind farms. The DEP intends to leave land-use matters to local governments.
“No land regulations affect your ability to develop wind energy,” Kloss said. “There is a strong reluctance to zone in this area.”
That point was illustrated at the Bedford meeting when Galen L. Musselman of Bedford Twp. spoke for wind power generally and against zoning in particular.
“Do you want someone to tell you what you can build on your property?” he asked.
Buterbaugh said he was approached by two wind-energy developers about leasing the land on Evitts Mountain that he purchased about 15 years ago for hunting. The second developer, FPL Energy, offered a better deal.
Before signing the lease, which he did without the advice of a lawyer, Buterbaugh visited the three wind farms in Somerset County.
“There isn’t any noise,” he said. “The view is not a problem. I couldn’t find any other problems, so I decided to sign up.”
Jim Webb, a Maryland resident whose wife’s family is from Altoona and Hollidaysburg, said he has had it with “wacko environmentalists” who “don’t let facts and truth get in the way.”
He has a lease agreement with PPM Energy that will allow the company to build turbines on land he owns on Evitts Mountain.
“You’d think it was ANWR,” he said, referring to the national controversy involving drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. “I’ve been to meetings where I was shouted down.”
The usefulness of zoning in turning back wind-energy development was illustrated over the summer in Lycoming County. The county zoning board turned down a request for a variance from Catamount Energy Corp. of Rutland, Vt., and Marubeni Power International of Japan.
They had proposed to spend about $100 million to build 35 wind turbines, which typically cost $1.5 million to $3 million each. The zoning board rejected the plan, according to a Patriot-News story, on quality-of-life grounds, impairment of the beauty of the mountains, and other issues. The two companies have appealed.
Vincent J. Matteo, president of the Williamsport-Lycoming Chamber of Commerce, blasted the decision, saying the wind farm would have brought good-paying jobs to the county.
If the Meyersdale Wind Farm is any example, job gains from wind-energy development might be few.
Local residents said many of the short-term construction jobs went to Danish workers brought in by the wind-turbine manufacturer, Neg Micon.
Stengel, of FPL Energy, said the Meyersdale facility has four full-time employees and three technicians who are dispatched from there but are technically assigned to FPL wind farms at Somerset, Mill Run and Garrett.
Local governments and school districts also don’t see as many benefits as they do from conventional power plants. The operators of conventional power plants pay taxes on the buildings that surround the generating equipment. The equipment is exempt from taxation under state law.
Wind turbines are nearly all equipment. According to the Summit Twp. tax collector, the 16 turbines at the Meyersdale Wind Farm generate a total of about $20,000 in annual property taxes to Summit Twp., the Meyersdale Area School District and Somerset County. About $1,600 of that goes to the township.
FPL Energy voluntarily contributes about $12,000 a year to community groups in Meyersdale through a foundation, the FPL Energy Meyersdale Wind Fund, which is administered by the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies in Johnstown. Grants to groups such as 4-H, American Legion baseball and the Main Street program have ranged from $200 to $3,000.
FPL Energy said it doesn’t have similar foundations in every community where it has a wind farm.
“It is not related to the tax level,” said Stengel of FPL. “It depends on what we hear from the community.”
By David DeKok: 255-8173 or email@example.com
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