On Monday, county Judge Nancy L. Butts heard arguments by lawyers involved in Laurel Hill Wind Energy LLC’s appeal of the county Zoning Hearing Board’s ruling to deny it a special exception to build a wind farm in northern Lycoming County.
According to courtroom spectator Maureen Wroblewski, Butts will need saint-like wisdom to make her decision whether to uphold or overturn the board’s ruling.
“I wouldn’t want to be in her position,” Wroblewski said.
Butts also will have to be a prolific reader.
During the hearing, she said she intends to read the entire testimony submitted to the board during a hearing that spanned nearly a year-and-a-half and included 26 separate three-hour meetings before making her decision.
“I believe (the testimony) is what it’s going to come down to,” Butts said.
Thomas C. Marshall, attorney for the wind energy company; Karl Baldys, solicitor for the Zoning Hearing Board; Charles F. Greevy III, solicitor for the county Planning Commission; and Arthur Plaxton, a Liberty resident who has been a staunch opponent of the project, presented arguments during the appeal hearing.
The issue involves the board’s ruling in June that an application for a special exception, which is needed to build in a resource protection zone, be denied.
Marshall said that during the Zoning Hearing Board hearing, “anyone with anything to present” was given an opportunity to do so. Marshall said that many expert witnesses testified in defense of the project, while there was little expert testimony provided by opponents that showed the project would adversely impact wildlife or water resources.
Marshall said that the project was supported by the supervisors of Jackson and McIntyre townships, where the project area is located.
Marshall said the board was required to make its decision based on three criteria: whether the project was consistent with the county comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance; whether it had an adverse impact on the environment and neighborhood; and whether it presented an undue burden on public facilities and infrastructure.
Marshall said that because the company agreed to more than 30 mitigation measures presented by the Planning Commission, the project was consistent with the comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance.
Insurance and bonds – as well as regulations imposed by state and federal environmental agencies and the state Department of Transportation – would ensure no adverse impact on infrastructure such as roads, he said.
According to Marshall, the board took a “not-in-my-backyard” decision based on speculation and made a decision “that no development is allowed in a resource protection zone.”
Baldys disagreed that the board made its decision arbitrarily. None of those involved in the decision live in the area or have a special interest in the project, he said.
According to Baldys, a resource protection zone, which is the most protected of all zones, allows minimal development.
The wind farm project will be seven miles long, include more than 700 leased acres, 240 of which will be disturbed, and more than 13 miles of access roads, Baldys said.
To say that the project of the wind farm’s magnitude is “minimal development” is wrong, he said.
“There is no conflicting evidence,” he said. “That is just the reality of the project.”
Baldys also said that many of the mitigation measures presented by the Planning Commission do not materially change anything about the project.
Plaxton called the 400-foot-high turbines a “massive visual intrusion.” Plaxton compared a wind turbine with a 40-story building and added that the visual impact will even be worse at night when they “will be lit up like a carnival.”
Federal Aviation Administration regulations require every third turbine be lit so that it ise visible to aircraft. The specific mode of lighting for the project has not been determined.
Butts asked Plaxton if the Planning Commission’s suggested mitigation measures were not enough to reduce the visual impact of the project.
The structures are so tall, the mitigation measures are “not sufficient to make a difference,” he said.
Plaxton also asked Butts to consider the testimony of residents who have lived in the project area all their lives and are able to assess the situation as credibly as “people with fancy degrees.”
Greevy said that the Planning Commission did not recommend unqualified approval or denial of the special exception application.
Planning staff provided “well thought out conditions and measures” that could not have been considered by the board because it reached its decision after only two hours of deliberations.
Those who say the project would adversely impact the beauty of the area ignore the fact that the project area is not designated a scenic area by the comprehensive plan, nor is the area pristine, Greevy said.
The area is fragmented by roads, buildings and power lines, and the timber is blighted and infested, he said.
Greevy said that Butts could do one of four things when rendering her decision – uphold the board’s decision and deny the application, reverse the decision and say nothing further, reverse the decision with mitigation measures included, or send the issue back to the zoning hearing board for reconsideration.
“All of us urge that that not be done,” he said of the last choice.
By David Thompson
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