Under the current state of wind energy development in the Appalachian chain, Bath County supervisors should be wary of leaving any “wiggle room” in the comprehensive plan where this particular type of utility is concerned.
During the work session last week, supervisors took noted statement in the plan about industrial wind energy left a little “wiggle room.”
Wiggle room has been the bane of land use planning since Virginia first mandated local comprehensive plans 30 years ago, and this is the wrong time to be overly general.
One of the biggest problems with planning is our distinct lack of skill in predicting what will happen. Ten or 20 years back, few people would have anticipated Highland County would be locked in its battle over commercial wind generation that has reached all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court, even though large scale wind farms have been common in California for decades.
Thus the problem with comprehensive plans – the need for wiggle room. The new Bath plan tries, as it should, to paint a picture of Bath County’s future in broad strokes. The balance between growth, which drives any local economic engine, and maintaining a character and quality of life which deserves to be protected, is a challenge faced by every locality in the nation and it never comes easy. This is especially true as we face increased demands for scarce natural resources.
But we cannot afford to forget that our landscapes and rural communities in Bath and Highland are themselves rare and precious resources. Leaving the door open in the comprehensive plan for commercial wind development, as it appears Bath supervisors intend to do, might seem wise at the moment. The restriction designed to avoid damaging viewsheds stated in the plan seems an adequate protection against some of the biggest worries.
But wiggle room is an odd thing. Once the first project slips through the crack, the space to maneuver tends to widen. While the comprehensive plan should be general in nature as a guiding document, given the challenges faced in Highland and the failure to understand the significant negative impacts of wind utilities in the Appalachian Mountains, it would be far more prudent to paint the possibility of industrial wind energy out of Bath’s picture for the next five years.
Highland planners, hoping to avoid having to address the issue, have suggested doing exactly that, though supervisors so far have failed to take any moves toward such an action.
State law requires local governments to update comprehensive plans every five years. Nothing prevents localities from amending the comprehensive plan at any time. The wind industry is not going away anytime soon, and the threat of industrializing Bath and Highland remains as real now as it did five years ago. Why not choose to keep further debate on its merits out of local planning decisions for five years?
Allowing “wiggle room” for a questionable energy source in an area of unquestionable beauty, water quality and plant and wildlife diversity is a dangerous risk. The big money at stake will keep developers hungry for places like this for years to come, or at least until they’re no longer subsidized by our tax dollars. Those who have fought the proliferation of wind plants in this region know all too well how protracted and expensive a battle it can be.
Both counties should use the opportunity while plans are being revised to make it clear no further proposals will be considered. At least for now.
28 June 2007
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