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Debate centers on environment; Highland wind farm's supporters and foes both claim high ground  

One Virginia family has a vision of windmills grinding out clean electric energy on the Highland County mountaintop they own.

Wind energy’s supporters see it as preferable to power generated by burning coal or other fossil fuels. Wind power, they say, can cut pollution that sickens people and contributes to global warming.

Opponents see windmills as a threat to migratory birds, bats and other wildlife. The mammoth structures will scar a pristine landscape and hurt tourism, they say.

Yesterday, a State Corporation Commission hearing got under way on Highland New Wind Development’s application to build 19 windmills on a 4,300-foot-high ridge along the West Virginia border. Each turbine would stand nearly 400 feet tall, about the height of a 40-story building.

What is unusual in this case is that each side is trying to stake a claim to the environmental high ground.

The commission hearing, before Hearing Officer Alexander F. Skirpan Jr., could last five days. Yesterday, Skirpan heard opening arguments and sworn testimony from about two dozen witnesses, including Highland residents and employees of state wildlife and natural-resources agencies concerned about the project.

John Flora, a Harrisonburg lawyer representing Henry T. McBride, the project developer, argued that the environmental benefits of the proposed windmill farm far outweigh the wildlife concerns.

The area is remote and has some of the best winds in Virginia, Flora said. “If the project is not approved, it’s hard to believe Virginia will ever have a wind farm,” he said.

Anthony Gambardella, a lawyer representing some of McBride’s Highland County neighbors, argued that the case is not about the virtues of wind power. The environmental costs of the proposed wind farm will be shouldered by the public without providing corresponding benefits, he said.

If the windmill plan is approved, it should come with conditions to mitigate the potential damage to wildlife, said Wiley Mitchell, a Norfolk lawyer representing The Nature Conservancy, which he said generally supports wind power.

Highland County’s Allegheny ridges are in the path of one of the biggest nocturnal migrations of birds and bats in the Eastern United States, Mitchell said. Studies of West Virginia and Pennsylvania wind farms have revealed unacceptable fatality rates for birds and bats, and the risks that windmills pose should be lowered, he said.

Mitchell clashed briefly with state Sen. Frank W. Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, who said the wind project meets a goal to increase Virginia-produced energy, which is in the state energy plan he sponsored. Mitchell, himself a former state senator, complained that Wagner was making speeches rather than answering his questions.

Mitchell at one point asked Wagner whether the state commission has legal authority to put conditions on a power plant permit.

It does as long as the conditions don’t make the project unworkable, Wagner responded. Greenhouse gases that cause global warming are a problem, and there is a need to expand energy conservation and the use of renewable energy such as wind power and nuclear power, he said.

Melissa Dowd, a lawyer for the Highland County Board of Supervisors, said the board thoroughly studied the issues before granting the wind project a zoning permit. The board put several conditions on the project, including a restriction on the height and number of windmills, but two lawsuits against the county permit are now before the Virginia Supreme Court, she said.

Contact staff writer Greg Edwards at gedwards@timesdispatch.com or (804) 649-6390.

timesdispatch.com

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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