A county court judge upheld the Lycoming County Zoning Hearing Board’s decision last year to deny a Vermont-based company permission to build a wind farm.
Laurel Hill Wind LLC had sought a special exception from the board to build dozens of electricity-generating wind turbines in northern Lycoming County. On July 14, after hearings that lasted nearly 18 months and included the testimony of scores of people, the board voted 3-2 against the project.
County Judge Nancy L. Butts upheld that decision Tuesday, saying the company failed to prove the project met three criteria required by the county zoning ordinance for a special exception to be granted.
For a special exception to be approved, a project:
“¢ Must be consistent with the county comprehensive plan and zoning ordinances;
“¢ Cannot result in a substantial or undue adverse affect on adjacent property, the character of the neighborhood, traffic conditions, parking or anything else that might affect public health, safety and general welfare;
“¢ Cannot overburden public facilities, utilities or services, according to the county zoning ordinance.
The company originally proposed building 47 388-foot-tall wind turbines on a mountain ridge in Jackson and McIntyre townships zoned either for agriculture or resource protection.
The scope of the project was later reduced to 35 wind turbines. The company also agreed to a list of measures designed to reduce the impact of the project and make it more compliant to the zoning ordinance and comprehensive plan.
According to the board’s written decision, the project was inconsistent with the comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance guidelines and would adversely affect neighboring property and the environment.
The company filed its appeal about a month later.
In mid-January, Butts heard arguments from board solicitor Karl K. Baldys and wind farm attorney Thomas Marshall, as well as county Planning Commission solicitor Charles F. Greevy III and Arthur Plaxton, a Liberty resident who has been a staunch opponent of the project.
Following testimony, Butts said she would make a decision after reviewing the voluminous amount of testimony and exhibits presented during the special exception hearing.
Jackson Township residents Frank and Judi Piccolella, who were among the group who opposed the project, said Thursday that they were overjoyed by Butts’ decision.
Frank Piccolella said he wanted to “thank (Judge Butts) for sticking to the letter of the law and making the democratic process work.”
“This project has been doomed from the start because it was in such gross conflict with the county zoning ordinance,” he said. “I feel the application (for a special exception) should never have been considered in the first place.”
“I’m very happy,” Judi Piccolella said. “Maybe our lives can get back to normal now.”
Robert Charlebois, project manager for the wind energy company, said he was “deeply disappointed” by the decision. He plans to meet with the company’s attorneys to consider possible future action.
“We certainly appreciate the hard work the court put in with this decision, but while we respect the decision we are currently evaluating our legal options with respect to it,” he said.
A new factor in the company’s calculations may be a proposed amendment to the zoning ordinance that was introduced to the county Planning Commission last week.
The amendment would allow wind energy development in resource protection and agriculture districts provided they complied with certain rules, and by special exception in countryside districts.
The county zoning ordinance currently allows development of wind turbines in agriculture and countryside zones and by special exception in resource protection zones.
According to the ordinance, a resource protection zone is designated to protect natural resources such as timber, water, plant life, scenic resource and wildlife habitat. Minimal development is allowed in the area and must be located so as to minimize impact on undisturbed areas.
Agricultural districts are to be used primarily for agriculture, and non-farm developments are restricted, according to the ordinance.
Countryside districts allow residential development as long as it is consistent with the rural countryside character and preserves natural habitats and scenic areas.
Planning Commission executive director Jerry S. Walls said the amendment was meant to “clarify” the existing ordinance and was directly related to the Laurel Hill issue.
The commission could decide at its June meeting whether to recommend the county commissioners enact the amendment.
By David Thompson
25 May 2007
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