The prolonged hearing by the county Zoning Hearing Board on whether to allow a large-scale wind farm to be built in northern Lycoming County – plus the subsequent appeal in county court of their denial of that project – underlines the county’s need for specific regulations regarding wind energy, Lycoming County Planning Commission chairman W.E. Toner Hollick said.
Vermont-based Laurel Hill Wind Energy LLC wanted to build 47, 388-foot-tall wind turbines – later amended to 35 taller turbines – on a seven-mile section of the Laurel Hill Ridge in Jackson and McIntyre townships in northern Lycoming County.
When, after a hearing lasting nearly a year-and-a-half, the board denied the special exception permit, the company appealed the decision in county court. County court Judge Nancy Butts upheld the board’s decision, but the company took its appeal to Commonwealth Court, where the case is being further considered.
“I think the commission recognizes the fact that we need an ordinance pertaining to windmills,” Hollick said. “The first time around there was nothing there. Without guidelines, that makes the Zoning Hearing Board’s job that much more difficult.”
What the new regulations will entail remains to be seen, however.
On July 19, the commission tabled a proposal by executive director Jerry S. Walls and planning staff to recommend the commissioners adopt a county zoning ordinance amendment that would change where electricity-generating wind facilities may be built.
The county zoning ordinance applies only to the 17 municipalities that are part of the county’s zoning partnership. The remaining municipalities have their own zoning ordinances in place.
The proposed amendment would make wind turbines permitted by right in resource protection and agriculture districts, and by special exception, which must be granted by the zoning hearing board, in countryside districts.
The ordinance currently allows wind turbines in agriculture and countryside districts by right, and in resource protection districts by special exception.
A decision on whether to allow a project by right is the responsibility of the county zoning administrator, while a special exception permit can only be granted with a majority approval of the Zoning Hearing Board.
Hollick said the commission tabled the measure because it was uncomfortable with the information and choices it was given. Hollick said one of the sticking points – at least for him – was whether wind turbines are appropriate for a resource protection district.
“I personally had a problem with a resource protection zone,” Hollick said. “My idea of resource protection is that (wind energy) seemed to be a violation of that zone.”
The commission asked county planning staff to devise an alternative that included continuing to allow wind farms in resource protection districts by special exception, but with more specific guidelines, he said.
Hollick said he expects the alternative proposal to be presented for consideration during the commission’s August meeting.
Walls said the initial amendment was proposed in an effort to “clarify” the existing zoning ordinance so as to avoid a reoccurance of the Laurel Hill hearing. Including the appeal in county court, the issue cost the county more than $100,000, Walls said.
The ordinance also needs clarification because the Pennsylvania Municipal Code states there can be no “de facto” prohibition of a specific use, meaning the zoning ordinance cannot indirectly prohibit it by relegating it to areas where it is impractical, Walls said.
Wind speeds that are conducive to driving wind turbines are typically found in the higher elevations of the county, and those areas are predominantly resource protection districts, he said.
Those areas also are close to power lines that are needed to transport electricity generated by wind turbines to the power grid, he said.
Turbines would not be allowed in so-called state-designated scenic, natural or wild areas— no matter which zoning district they overlap, Walls said.
Walls admitted that turbines located outside a designated scenic viewshed will still be seen for many miles, including from scenic areas.
He also admitted that scenic areas were designated in the mid 1970s and that the Laurel Hill Ridge, which was devastated by strip mining and infestations at the time, has vastly improved since then.
Opponents of the proposal said the true intent of the amendment is to circumvent the Zoning Hearing Board’s decision – and Judge Butt’s ruling upholding that decision – to deny the special exception to the wind energy company.
Planning Commission deputy director Kurt Hausammann Jr. said during a commission meeting in June that Laurel Hill Wind Energy Co. could reapply for a permit the day after the amendment became effective.
Walls said it became apparent the amendment was needed long before the board made its decision and would have been proposed no matter how it had ruled.
“We knew we were going to have to do something the day after (the wind company) walked through our door,” he said.
Walls said the state’s initiative toward alternative energy sources could mean more companies will become interested in the wind resources in Lycoming County. Any wind farm application will be subject to laws in place at the time the application is made, so it is important to implement new regulations as soon as possible, he said.
The county cannot have an ordinance that institutes “de facto” prohibition of wind energy, Walls said. In other words, the ordinance must provide for wind energy in areas where it is practical, and not in areas where it could not possibly function.
Walls said the amendment, while allowing wind turbines in some areas of the county, will give the county more control over how they are built and provide bond assurances for decommissioning and possible negative impacts on the community.
“We’ve concluded that wind energy facilities are boni-fide green technologies, but they do pose site-specific impacts and even site-specific hazards if located inappropriately,” Walls said.
Prohibiting wind farms in countryside districts, which have more concentrated population level, would also ensure that wind farms are established in areas where they will have the least impact on communities, he said.
Arthur Plaxton, of Jackson Township, said that is exactly why wind farms should not be allowed in resource protection districts. Pennsylvania has a reputation for its pristine mountains, streams and wilderness, Plaxton said.
A wind farm could severely impact the state’s burgeoning eco-tourism industry, jeopardizing industry-related jobs and cash revenue, he said.
The proposed amendment also is contrary to the spirit of the county’s Comprehensive Plan, which advises against ridgeline and mountaintop development, Jackson Township resident Maureen Wroblewski said.
“We have a rock solid Comprehensive Plan and a rock solid zoning ordinance that shows wind farms have no business in resource protection zones,” she said.
Walls said he understands the concerns of people living in areas where wind farms might be built, but added that the proposed amendment is a compromise that benefits the entire county.
Hollick said he has grown sympathetic to the concerns of residents who live in the Laurel Hill area and are opposed to the project.
“The commission had the same starting point – how can you go against wind energy?” Hollick said. “As it unfolds, you get to see the negative impact on people living where windmills will be built.”
“Looking at all the fine print, you can argue it both ways,” Hollick added. “There are many sides to this and it’s not easy to make a decision.”
The decision is one the commission will have to make, nonetheless, Hollick said.
“We’re not going to satisfy everybody. It’s not possible to do that,” he said.
The commissioners will be the ones who will ultimately decide whether to adopt the ordinance, he said.
Commissioner Dick Nassberg, who has publicly opposed the Laurel Hill project, Tuesday said he would not comment on any ordinance amendments proposed by the Planning Commission.
“Given that this will come before us for consideration, I think it would be inappropriate for me to speculate on it or discuss it,” Nassberg said. “I intend to hear everything presented and make a decision accordingly.”
By David Thompson
29 July 2007
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