For Jackson Township resident Walt Wroblewski, Thursday night’s Lycoming County Planning Commission meeting may have seemed like a bad case of deja vu.
“Here we go all over again,” Wroblewski whispered as commission members discussed a county zoning ordinance amendment that, if passed, will affect which zoning districts commercial wind farms can be built in.
The county ordinance currently allows wind farms in agricultural and countryside zones by right and by special exception permit in resource protection zones.
The amendment, which was first proposed during the commission’s May meeting, would allow wind farms in resource protection and agricultural zones by right, and in countryside zones by special exception.
Wroblewski was among a group of residents from northern Lycoming County who opposed a wind farm on Laurel Ridge in Jackson and McIntyre Townships, most of which was proposed for a resource protection zone.
After a hearing that lasted nearly a year-and-a-half, the county zoning hearing board denied the wind energy company, Laurel Hill Wind Energy, a permit for a special exception to build the wind farm.
The company appealed the decision in county Common Pleas Court. Judge Nancy Butts upheld the board’s decision in a ruling issued in May.
Wroblewski told the Planning Commission the amendment to the zoning ordinance would effectively wipe out the board’s and Judge Butts’ decisions and allow Laurel Hill Wind Energy to build the wind turbines anyway.
“We just went through 18 months with the zoning hearing board, and Judge Butts’ 40-page decision,” Wroblewski said. “This one (ordinance) overturns both decisions. There will be no more denying wind turbines in resource protection zones.”
“Once this is approved, everything we fought for is gone,” he said.
McIntyre Township resident Joseph Cuff said he believed “the whole purpose of (the amendment) is to subjugate (Butts’) decision.”
“That’s what this is all about,” Cuff said. “Obviously, that’s what the purpose of this has been from the beginning.”
“You proposed to change the law so that Laurel Hill (Wind Energy) can come in. It’s that simple,” he said.
Commission executive director Jerry S. Walls denied the amendment was designed to reverse the zoning hearing board or the courts.
Its purpose is to clarify the existing ordinance so that situations similar to the Laurel Hill controversy can be avoided, Walls said.
Walls previously said the Laurel Hill hearing and court costs exceeded $100,000 for the county.
While those who opposed the Laurel Hill project are concerned about that issue, the county has to look at wind energy as a countywide issue, Walls said.
“We cannot be driven only by the Laurel Hill case,” he said.
County development services supervisor Clifford Kanz said the state municipal code requires a county zoning ordinance that provides for all zoning uses, whether it be for an adult book store, a quarry or a wind farm.
Kanz said that because countryside districts are more conducive to denser residential development than agriculture or resource protection districts, it is more appropriate to require a special exception for wind energy in that district.
Board chairman W. E. Toner Hollick asked Walls and his staff if the amendment “violates the spirit of intent of a resource protection district?”
County environmental planner Kevin McJunkin said the first part of the description of a resource protection zone may not seem compatible with the amendment.
According to the ordinance, a resource protection zone is designated to protect natural resources such as timber, water, plant life, scenery and wildlife and wildlife habitat.
However, the county comprehensive plan promotes wind as a natural resource, so that could imply that it conforms to the ordinance, McJunkin said.
Walls said he believed the amendment was consistent with the definition of a resource protection zone.
Judy Piccolella of Liberty said she was unconvinced that wind farms are consistent with a resource protection zone.
The board discussed the amendment page by page and agreed to several changes before approving it unanimously.
The amendment will be sent to municipalities under the county zoning ordinance for review. Municipalities and residents may provide comments to the county.
The commission will then vote on whether to make a recommendation to the county commissioners that they approve the amendment and make it part of the county zoning ordinance.
By David Thompson
22 June 2007
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