The wait will be long and uncomfortable for the hundreds of Highlanders so vehemently opposed to inviting industrial wind energy into the county and at this point, nothing about where this project is headed is easily predicted.
Virginia’s Supreme Court, having heard arguments and read briefs, will make its decision strictly on interpretations of the law. Citizens sued the county, alleging the way Highland’s board of supervisors went about granting a permit for Highland New Wind Development was illegal. For those who have battled this “green” energy project for nearly five years, the emotional toll, not to mention the financial one, has been huge. But it will be September before the court issues its decision, and that opinion will not reflect what has brought this contentious debate to a head – environmental issues, the majority who signed petitions in protest, or the fragile quality of life so many citizens believe will quickly disappear if industrial development of this kind is allowed to get its foot in the door.
Those witnessing the court’s session last Thursday had mixed reactions – some felt there was hope the court would agree, and void HNWD’s permit. Just as many seemed to think there was little hope they would prevail. The plush red carpets, black robes, and thick marble columns reflected the serious nature of the court’s business, but nothing on the faces of the seven justices behind the bench revealed what they were thinking or how they would rule.
For many here, what plays out now is a continuous and tortuous “what if” game – the scenarios that could happen next will either send Highland County through more months of debate or end it. Conventional wisdom goes something like this:
“¢ If the court rules in favor of the county, HNWD’s permit stands. No other appeals can be made.
“¢ If the court rules in favor of Highland citizens, HNWD’s permit is void, and the developer will have to reapply for a new permit. HNWD and the county would essentially repeat the permitting process over, in the right order.
“¢ Here’s where it could get ugly: The court’s decision isn’t final until after the 30-day period in which challenges can be written (end of October). A week later, Highland’s general elections are held, and where things go from there depends largely on who’s elected.
“¢ If the permit process must be repeated, and there’s a new set of supervisors set to take office Jan. 1, 2008, either the old board must rush the process to reissue a permit before the end of the year, or decide to leave the process to a new board – one which could potentially oppose granting another permit.
“¢ If current supervisors are reelected, they are likely to take their reelection as a mandate and support HNWD’s permit a second time.
None of this takes into account what may or may not happen at the State Corporation Commission, where HNWD has a state permit pending. A decision by the SCC is likely to be made just before the court’s decision is issued. Those who sued the county for issuing the local permit, may choose to sue the SCC if it grants a state permit. And guess where that lawsuit goes? Directly to the Supreme Court.
All of this makes a few things clear:
“¢ Supervisors, as we’ve said many times, long ago lost any control over how and when this 39-megawatt utility is developed.
“¢ Highland citizens opposed to the project feel strongly enough to fight as long and as hard as necessary until all options are exhausted.
“¢ This year’s elections will be a turning point. There’s little doubt any single issue facing this county will drive voters to the polls with more determination. Those opposed to the project will not send at least two supervisors back to office. Those who believe the county did the right thing will return them to their seats.
The election will end the debate as to which side is in the majority. That in itself will be an important step in the long, healing process that will be required to bring this bitterly divisive issue to an end.
14 June 2007
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