If there could ever be a bill custom-tailored to boost Highland New Wind Development’s plans for a wind energy utility in Highland County, this one is it.
Sen. Frank Wagner introduced legislation in this session of the General Assembly that not only flies in the face of proper land use procedures, but is designed specifically to help HNWD get its project up and running.
His bill would change the law regarding utility plan reviews by local governing bodies. The way HNWD’s project has been handled here is precisely what residents and landowners are challenging in an appeals process now slated for a full hearing before Virginia’s Supreme Court. Wagner may argue his bill would help companies statewide who hope to develop renewable energy, but it’s a thinly veiled attempt to help this particular company industrialize Allegheny Mountain, and it needs to be resoundly defeated by the House this week.
Wagner, as Highlanders recall, successfully passed legislation last session to enact the Virginia Energy Plan which, among other things, makes the development of renewable sources of electric power in the state easier. And he’s been on a roll ever since. He even testified before the State Corporation Commission to bolster support for HNWD. But with this bill, Wagner has crossed too far over the line. It is nothing but an end-run around planning processes that are supposed to provide plenty of guidance for local governments, protect citizens, and protect the environment. Such “special interest” bills have no place in Virginia, and Wagner’s proposal is, at minimum, an egregious and unethical move for a state lawmaker.
The measure makes it OK to approve utilities and associated infrastructure before a planning commission has the opportunity to determine whether they’re in tune with a locality’s comprehensive plan. It would turn the planning and land use review process on its head, and leave way too much power in the hands of a governing body – in this case, Highland’s board of supervisors.
The bill as amended does not specifically refer to HNWD’s project, or wind energy projects of any kind, but it doesn’t have to. The way it was initially written leaves little doubt Wagner is trying to make sure HNWD’s utility gets built. The draft he introduced originally came packaged with language that targeted utilities generating 50 megawatts or less, and proposed to remove the “by right” chance for citizens to appeal a State Corporation Commission decision to the Supreme Court. At this point, HNWD’s project is the only one that fits the bill. Highland citizens are challenging the county’s permit decision in cases before the Supreme Court, and would likely appeal an SCC decision if a state permit is granted.
If passed into law, the legislation would make a planning commission’s determination on utilities virtually worthless. The current law is intended to give planners a chance to review projects in detail, and decide how well they fit with land use plans. That’s supposed to happen before governing bodies vote on projects so officials have plenty of guidance. If a planners’ review happens after the fact, local governments may as well not have planning commissions at all. The layers required by law in Virginia have been fine-tuned over decades to create a multitude of proper land use planning tools and methods for reviewing developments of all kinds. Taking even one of those layers away, or in this case making it irrelevant, is no way to run a democracy.
The good news is, Virginia’s Supreme Court apparently feels there is enough merit to the pending lawsuits to proceed with a full hearing.
In the meantime, the General Assembly has no business writing laws that undermine such basic consitutional foundations aimed at giving due process to land use issues. The senators who approved the bill, including our own Sen. Emmett Hanger, have no business interfering while this project works its way through the SCC and Supreme Court. They know better. They wouldn’t approve measures designed for Highland County when it came to the school funding formula, which was so clearly flawed. Why then would they choose to support one company that stands to earn millions, especially when the majority of Highland citizens stand so staunchly opposed to the way this industry has emerged? Probably because there’s a cozy relationship between HNWD and a handful of legislators.
This bill should never have gotten this far. The House should kill it in committee before democratic governance comes to a screeching halt.
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