As neighboring Highland County continues contentious discussions on commercial wind power, Bath County officials have taken another step toward learning what they can and should do to prepare for more inquiries from the wind industry about developing ridge tops here. Though supervisors and planners agreed they need to plan head, the federal lands making up half the county could mean there’s little they can do to prevent the industry from taking hold.
Bath supervisors and planning officials heard an in depth presentation Tuesday on the range of ways the county can address wind energy in the comprehensive plan and land use regulations.
Darryl Crawford, senior planner with the Central Shenandoah Planning District Commission, presented the results of his four year study of wind energy and how localities in Virginia can deal with the industry on a small and large scale.
After the presentation, supervisors agreed no one in the county had told them they favored commercial wind energy in Bath. They also agreed the county must do something in the comprehensive plan and land use regulations to protect the county from an industry that’s quickly gaining a foothold in the Appalachian chain.
Supervisor Stuart Hall summed up the board’s feelings. “I feel safer addressing (wind turbines) than waiting for someone else. We need to put tools in place to deal with them.”
Crawford, who served as county planner in Bath a decade ago before joining the CSPDC, told officials he was not trying to present any one side or the other. “Our role in wind energy is not to be for or against,” Crawford said. He said the wind energy issue tends to divide people. “Please don’t shoot the messenger” was one of the first slides in his presentation.
Crawford began with a brief overview of the history of wind power. “Windmills” he said, date back many hundreds of years and were actually use to grind grain.
The first megawatt (million watt) wind turbine went online in 1940, he said. Interest in wind energy picked back up during the mid-’70s.
In 1978 an experimental wind turbine was installed on Howard’s Knob in Boone, N.C. That project “set wind energy back 20 years,” Crawford said. Crawford went to college near the Boone turbine. He said it was noisy and vibrated the ground and generally turned people off to wind energy.
In recent years, customer demand for green energy, along with state and federal mandates for renewable electricity, along with the tax credits to subsidize them, have driven a renewed interest in wind power.
“Green” energy is generally considered to mean energy from sources that are renewable and non-polluting. This includes wind, geothermal, small-scale hydropower, solar power and biomass power.
Crawford said the county needed to address three different classes of wind generation facility:
Small-scale facilities are generally single units serving a farm or residence.
Community-scale wind serves a community, series of houses, or a business. The capacity is generally in the 5- 10 megawatt range, said Crawford, and the power does not go out on the grid.
Commercial wind power is what people generally think of when wind power is mentioned, said Crawford. These are the huge turbines on 400-foot towers with blades that sweep an area 80 percent the size of a football field.
“Make sure you know what you are talking about,” Crawford cautioned. “The definitions (small, community, commercial) are not always the same. Make good local definitions.”
Chairman Cliff Gilchrest suggested the board and other interested citizens travel to Tucker County, W.Va. to see the wind utility there. “From a distance, they were curious,” he said.
A number citizens raised questions about the economic viability of wind power in the county. Bacova resident Jay Trinca said he thought wind power was a “big ponzi scheme.”
Economic concerns are not the purview of land use decisions, Crawford responded. Many operations, including farming, are subsidized, he pointed out.
The local government can only restrict or control anything that would negatively impact the health, welfare or safety of county citizens, he said. Whether any business or project makes money is not a land use issue, he added.
County attorney Michael Collins said for a land use regulation or decision to hold up in court, it must not be capricious or arbitrary.
Totally banning wind power might not be defensible, said Crawford.
Hall suggested the county “write our own destiny” by allowing for wind turbines in restricted areas with explicit requirements that might sufficiently discourage any projects.
Wind power is not universally disliked, Crawford said. One county in Minnesota is trying to become the wind capital of the world, he said. “There are good projects that communities support,” Crawford said. But he said again, few other issues polarize people as dramatically.
Hall referred to the ongoing debate over an industrial wind energy proposal in Highland County, where a local permit granted by supervisors has been challenged at the Supreme Court level. “I don’t want to see our taxpayers throwing money away in the courts,” he said.
Resident Kirby Buzzard asked if any locality had fought against wind energy development and been successful.
Crawford replied wind energy is new to Virginia and only a few localities have ordinances in place. None have been tested in the courts so far, he added.
The state is currently mapping locations suitable for wind utilities and ranking the localities. Crawford showed the board the current map listing Bath as a No. 1 – “very acceptable.”
Government lands are excluded from the survey, Crawford said. “Four years ago we never thought we’d see wind farms on federal lands,” he said. Now there is a change in the discussion.
The policy at state and federal levels may change Crawford warned. He pointed out more than 50 percent of Bath County is national forest.
Normally, land use planning doesn’t include national forest and other government properties, Crawford said, because the local authority does not extend to those lands.
In the case of wind facilities, Crawford is encouraging localities to include government property in wind power overlays and zones. While not binding, he says, “the more explicit the comp plan, the more likely the federal agency will comply” with local wishes.
The list of issues Bath and other localities must address to effectively deal with wind power is daunting – from small back yard type generators to who pays to remove a worn out commercial wind farm in 20 years.
Some localities are choosing to wait and see, Crawford said. Supervisor Percy Nowlin said, “We probably do not need to wait and see.”
But the prospect of losing control over wind energy development looms in the background even if the county takes action.
“Lobbyists on both sides of the issue are active,” Crawford said. If the industry feels like localities are closing them out unfairly, they may be able to get legislation that cancels local land use control.
Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, Crawford reminded the board. Localities have only the authority to tax and regulate those things given to them by the state legislature. So any laws passed in Richmond would trump local land use regulations. The same could be true of federal regulations tied to local funding or connected to interstate commerce, both of which the federal government can regulate.
The tone of the meeting was somber and concerned but cautiously optimistic.
“I’m holding out the hope that most of our county isn’t suitable” for large scale wind development,” Gilchrest said.
But just the same, he said the county should take “preemptive action in our own favor.”
By Charles Garratt
26 July 2007