Any way you cut it, the State Corporation Commission staff’s decision to recommend approval of Mac McBride’s wind project on Allegheny Mountain was a pre-determined cop out.
Because Highland County’s supervisors long ago dismissed the concerns of the great majority of their constituents about the negative effects of industrial scale wind power on tourism and viewsheds, the SCC staff was also able to sidestep the heart of the matter in its purely technical support of HNWD’s bid for a state permit to begin construction.
All the heartfelt testimony of those who would be directly affected by the project related to the county’s beauty, history, cultural heritage and future opportunity based on these factors was simply ignored. SCC personnel said those things had already been considered by HighSland County supervisors when they reviewed the company’s application for a local conditional use permit.
Most Highland residents believe their elected officials failed in this process, and the majority of other appointed leaders who got involved agreed they could not support HNWD’s plans. The examination of HNWD’s application by county supervisors did not begin to sufficiently assess the profound impacts this project could have. Two of the three on our board chose to lean on biased information and a subjective review of the county’s land use plan, and ignore the pleas of their constituents who came to them armed with an army of research showing these leaders they didn’t begin to have all the facts.
Now, thanks to the weight Virginia gives local government decisions, the vote of approval made here so many months ago appears nearly impossible to overturn, either at the SCC or in the courts. Highland citizens so staunchly oppose the project proposal they’re spending thousands of dollars to take their case all the way to the Supreme Court, and the county is forced to spend a similar sum to defend its position.
Every other locality in Virginia should be paying close attention.
Some already are, including Bath County, where officials are willing to give serious consideration now to installing an ordinance protecting its ridges from this kind of exploitation. Drafting legal language in ways that protect the rights of private property owners is important, as Bath supervisors point out. But it is imperative they find a way to balance those rights against the pressures of any industry which seeks to take advantage of Bath’s high winds or any other natural resource.
Patrick County, further south, moved quickly to take such measures when wind utility developers came calling last year. Leaders there bought themselves enough time to learn how their residents felt, and most said they would not welcome 400-foot towers.
Highland supervisors passed up all opportunities for finding out and acting on our residents’ concerns, even when presented with solid evidence there was, at minimum, a large portion of them who staunchly believe this uncertain industry has no place here, or should at least be put on hold until it proved itself viable.
The law requires SCC to consider potential environmental impacts, and whether those are found against the interests of the general welfare of Virginia residents. The state’s reviewing agencies have done an outstanding job presenting solid evidence, in agreement with federal agencies, that wind energy in Highland County will pose serious threats not just to wildlife, but to its cultural, historic, and economic assets as well.
Meanwhile, HNWD continues to argue it should not be responsible for answering to every possible impact, or bear the financial costs associated with further assessment. But given its strong support from the energy industry and its powerful lobbyists, and the millions of dollars it stands to make for decades to come if this project is approved, that argument rings hollow. The SCC must hold HNWD responsible in every way, before and after construction. It does little good to find out well after the blades are spinning that the utility, as predicted, has done irrevocable damage.
There is every reason for the commission to do its due diligence, especially because this will set a precedent for all other wind utility applications to follow. The pressure is on from state lawmakers who see this “green” renewable energy source as means to reduce Virginia’s use of fossil fuels – another misguided equation that doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.
The harsh reality seems to be that local elected leaders carry a great deal of weight when they make their decisions, even if their decisions are reckless or indifferent to the opinions of those who put them in office. Let this be a warning to voters this November.
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