- National Wind Watch: Wind Energy News - https://www.wind-watch.org/news -

Ashe schedules a special hearing for possible vote on windmill farm

Ashe County commissioners announced yesterday a special meeting to consider a proposed ordinance regulating wind-energy generation.

The meeting was called after last week’s public hearing before the N.C. Utilities Commission drew an overflow crowd to talk about a proposed wind farm in Ashe County.

Two brothers who own the land have applied to build the state’s first large-scale wind farm. It would include 25 to 28 windmills, each about 300 feet tall on or near Big Springs Mountain.

The proposal has drawn strong debate. Supporters said during the hearing that alternative energy sources are vital and the project could help farmers preserve their land against housing development. Opponents said that the wind farm is too large and would ruin views and harm the tourist industry and property values.

The commissioners’ special meeting will begin at 5 p.m. Wednesday in the small courtroom at the Ashe County Courthouse, 150 Government Circle. The commissioners will also take up the matter at 5 p.m. Monday as part of a regularly scheduled meeting.

Comments from the public will be accepted at Wednesday’s meeting. Commissioners could introduce the ordinance, debate it and vote on it Wednesday. A second vote would be required for the ordinance to pass, and the second reading could be considered Monday.

The N.C. Utilities Commission, which will make a decision on the project, will hold a public hearing on the proposal in Raleigh on Feb. 13.

Richard Blackburn, the chairman of the Ashe County Board of Commissioners, said that people shouldn’t read anything into the timing of the local meetings other than to let the public know its input is welcome and commissioners are working on the issue.

“We thought the timing was such we needed to get it introduced,” he said. “We need to let the public know we’re considering it.”

The agenda for Wednesday’s special meeting also calls for commissioners to consider the question of whether the state’s ridge law already deals with commercial wind generation on mountain ridges. Commissioners will also consider a resolution asking the Utilities Commission for more time so that Ashe County government can develop a position on the issue.

In July, Ashe County farmer and physician Richard Calhoun and his brother Tommy filed an application with the N.C. Utilities Commission to build the wind farm. The 50-megawatt wind farm could generate enough electricity to power about 12,500 homes.

When the application was filed, Richard Calhoun was an Ashe County commissioner. He did not seek re-election and is no longer on the board.

In a letter to the Utilities Commission dated Jan. 18, the brothers said that their attorney is John Kilby. The letter was sent with an introduction on the letterhead of Kilby’s legal firm.

Kilby is the county attorney who advises the board of commissioners. Kilby did not return a phone call yesterday.

The Calhouns’ letter said that their firm, Northwest Wind Developers LLC, maintains that the Mountain Ridge Protection Act of 1983, commonly called the ridge law, excludes windmills and does not apply to the project.

“Our land is accessible and we understand how to develop it without destroying it,” the brothers wrote. “Every effort will be made to protect the Mountain. This Mountain is a sacred place to me, having walked to its summit since early childhood.”

The brothers said that the fading of the burley-tobacco industry and other pressures on farming mean that wind energy is the only source of income that can make their operations financially competitive. Otherwise, they said, the land will yield to development.

Last week’s hearing drew a crowd that packed an Ashe County courtroom. People sat in every seat, including two jury boxes. People stood in the aisles, in rows along the back wall, out the door and into the courthouse rotunda.

Attorney Andrea Capua represented the Calhouns at the hearing. She is the Watauga County government attorney who helped develop a wind-energy ordinance there last August.

During last week’s hearing, the crowd expressed anger that so many people testifying came from Boone, where Appalachian State University has an energy center that studies windmills.

In a letter dated Jan. 15, Dennis Grady, the director of the ASU Energy Center, filed a letter on ASU letterhead with the Utilities Commission saying “… projects like the one proposed here are necessary if we are to achieve maximum economic and environmental benefit in meeting future electricity demand.” He also cited a study the center conducted in 2002 that found most people in Western North Carolina mountains support utility-scale wind projects.

By Monte Mitchell
Journal Reporter

“ยข Monte Mitchell can be reached in Wilkesboro at 336-667-5691 or at mmitchell@wsjournal.com.