Ashe County Commissioners voted unanimously this week to adopt a new ordinance regulating the size and placement of wind power systems in unincorporated areas of the county.
The vote came after a surprisingly brief public hearing at the County Courthouse Monday afternoon that saw nothing like the contentious, standing-room-only crowds that had packed gatherings on the subject earlier this year.
The hearing convened at 4:30. Six speakers signed up to address the commissioners and nearly all thanked the officials for their work in drafting the new county rules on wind turbines. By 4:45 the public comment portion of the hearing was completed and the board was ready to vote.
A less than unanimous tally would have meant a second reading of the new ordinance at an Aug. 7 meeting. But that became unnecessary when all five commissioners raised their hands in agreement, passing the proposal into law.
The new ordinance establishes two designations for wind energy systems, small and large, with small consisting of a single turbine rated at less than 20 kilowatts. The ordinance defines large systems as those consisting of one or more turbines capable of generating more than 20 kilowatts.
A 135-foot height limit was placed on small systems while large systems can reach as high as 199 feet – a number the commission said was based on Federal Aviation Administration regulations requiring lighting to warn aircraft of air space hazards.
Phil Stanley, of Lansing, said he understood that the commissioners had set the height limit for large wind energy systems to avoid the presence of strobe lights on the mountain ridges. He argued that the lights would be of little concern.
“Hundreds if not thousands of strobe lights pass over you every night,” Stanley said, “and they don’t keep me awake.”
Several of the speakers who addressed the board from the public were from the Creston area, where Richard Calhoun and Northwest Wind Developers, LLC, are seeking the go-ahead to build a wind farm of between 25-28 turbines erected on the ridge of Big Springs Mountain. Calhoun has said initial plans for the farm call for turbines reaching heights between 260 and 345 feet.
Cynthia Wadsworth, a Creston resident, told the commissioners her father, Dr. Erwing Wadsworth, had been one of the proponents of the 1983 Mountain Ridge Protection Act conceived after the construction of a high-rise resort at the peak of Avery County’s Sugar Top Mountain.
“I am his legacy,” she said as she stood at the podium addressing the commissioners. “He’s dead, but I know he’s standing beside me right now.”
Wadsworth said she feared the turbines proposed for Big Springs Mountain would spoil the beauty of the ridges in Ashe County. A proponent of wind energy in general, Wadsworth said after the hearing she was satisfied that the new ordinance would sufficiently limit the scale of such systems without prohibiting them completely.
“I’m for it, but not on this scale,” Wadsworth said, referring to the proposed Big Springs Mountain project.
Jeff Martin, who said he lived on East Windland Ridge, told the commissioners he and his wife had recently visited a wind farm in Pennsylvania.
“Even in a place where you see lots of people and lots of big buildings,” Martin said, “(the wind farm) doesn’t fit. We’ve got one big thing going on here in Ashe County, and it’s the scenery.”
Joe Hoosier said his late father, Lillard Hoosier, would be “turning in his grave” if the Creston wind farm ever came to be. “I don’t think it will happen, though. There’s too many people against it.”
In addition to height, the new ordinance also regulates the distance from the wind turbines and adjacent property and roads.
According to the new law, wind turbines must be set back at least 1,000 feet from neighboring properties. It also requires they sit back from public and private roads a distance measuring one-and-a-half times the height of the tallest turbine on the property.
The setbacks are based on safety concerns related to the possibility of a turbine falling over, as well as the prospect that the blades of the windmills – the tips of which can reach speeds of over 200 mph – might throw sheets of ice in cold weather.
County Planning Director Zach Edwardson has cited research showing that dangerously large ice sheets can be thrown as far as 300-350 feet by the blades.
The ordinance also requires that electric utility lines, “insofar as possible,” be placed underground. Large wind energy systems are also prohibited from rising above the vegetative canopy of protected mountain ridges by more than 35 feet. Protected ridges are defined as those on mountains rising more than 500 feet above adjacent valley floors.
By Jerry Sena
19 July 2007
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