The Virginia Supreme Court will enter the national debate over wind energy for the first time this summer when it hears a challenge to the state’s first proposed wind farm.
A lower court ruled in favor of the controversial Highland County project last year, but in an unusual step, the high court decided this week to hear the case directly rather than having it first reviewed by a three-judge panel.
The Supreme Court will hear arguments in June. A ruling is expected in September.
The case is being watched nationwide by energy developers and conservationists as wind power expands from its traditional home in the West and Midwest to the Appalachian Mountains.
The dispute involves Virginia’s first proposed industrial wind project – 19 turbines along the West Virginia border – and focuses on whether local land-use regulations were properly followed when Highland County officials approved it.
It’s expected to set a precedent for procedures local governments use when considering wind projects.
“This case isn’t about whether wind energy is bad or good,” said David Bailey, a lawyer for the project’s opponents. “It’s a siting issue on the pristine ridges of one of the last, big undisturbed areas in Virginia. This is just the wrong place to put it.”
John Flora, a lawyer who represents the project developer, Highland New Wind Development, could not be reached for comment.
In 2006, a Highland County District Court judge ruled that the Highland County Board of Supervisors followed proper procedure when it issued a conditional-use permit for the 400-foot-tall turbines. The judge also ruled that the project complies with the county’s height ordinance and comprehensive plan.
The Supreme Court will hear arguments about those three issues.
Frank Maisano, a spokesman for Highland New Wind Development, said he is confident the lower court’s rulings will be upheld.
“We hope the Supreme Court sends a strong message that frivolous lawsuits won’t be accepted,” he said.
On the regulatory front, a State Corporation Commission hearing examiner is expected to decide next month whether to issue a permit to build and operate the wind project.
Opponents say the turbines would kill birds and bats, harm tourism and ruin views while generating inconsistent energy that could power no more than a few thousand homes.
Supporters say the $60 million project could generate enough power for about 15,000 homes and about $200,000 in annual tax revenue to Highland County without harming the environment.
By John Cramer
The Roanoke Times
16 February 2007
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