Development of wind power in northern Lycoming County took a potential step closer to reality Wednesday at the Lycoming County Planning Commission’s meeting.
At that session the commission voted unanimously to recommend that the county commissioners approve an amendment to the county zoning ordinance that will allow electricity-generating wind turbines in so-called resource protection zones.
The ordinance currently allows wind turbines in such zones only if a special exception permit is granted by the county Zoning Hearing Board.
Earlier this year, planning commission executive director Jerry S. Walls said an amendment to the ordinance was needed to better define the criteria for wind energy in the county.
Walls said the amendment was apparent after Vermont-based Laurel Hill Wind Energy Co. submitted an application for a special exception permit to build a wind farm in Jackson and McIntyre townships in northern Lycoming County.
The turbines would be erected on land that is mostly resource protection zone.
The issue went before the Zoning Hearing Board, which denied the application after a hearing that lasted nearly a year-and-half. According to Walls, the hearing and subsequent court appeal cost the county more than $100,000.
Originally, planning staff proposed an amendment that would make wind energy a permitted use by right in resource protection zones as long as it was not in a state-designated “scenic view area.”
But county residents living near the project objected to the proposal, alleging the measure was simply a way of slipping the Laurel Hill project toward approval regardless of existing regulations. The commission asked during a subsequent meeting for staff to provide an alternative to the amendment.
Although staff on Wednesday presented an alternative amendment in which wind energy would still be permitted by special exception, but with more defined criteria, the commission unanimously supported the original amendment to make it a permitted use by right.
If the commissioners approve the amendment, it will be up to the county zoning administrator to determine whether a wind energy project meets the criteria for a permit to build in a resource protection zone, Walls said.
The zoning administrator may demand additional documentation to ensure that all criteria included in the amendment is met, Walls said.
According to commission deputy director Kurt Hausammann Jr., those owning land adjacent to the project would be notified by letter about the permit being issued and would have 30 days to voice their concerns in writing to the zoning administrator.
As with previous commission meetings involving the issue, the meeting, which was held in the commissioners board room at the Executive Plaza, was well-attended by both opponents and supporters of wind energy.
For more than two hours, wording of the amendment was debated, with members of the audience and commission members questioning specific passages regarding minimum set-backs from buildings and property lines, decommissioning bonds, radio and television wave interference, and the ability of municipalities to negotiate compensation from wind energy companies.
Arthur Plaxton, who has been a vocal opponent of the Laurel Hill project, argued that with a permitted use, residents near a proposed wind project would have no way of learning about the project, and would be unable to object to it.
Other opponents said they were concerned about safety and environmental issues. Frank Piccolella of Jackson Township said he had documented proof of hundreds of catastrophic wind turbine accidents. His wife Judi said she knew of wind turbines collapsing in Asian countries during hurricanes.
McIntyre Township Supervisor Albert Boyer told the commission that during the Laurel Hill hearing, the Zoning Hearing Board “did the best it could with a broken set of guidelines.” Boyer said the township supervisors supported changing the zoning ordinance so that wind farms would be permitted by right.
Robert Myers, a Hughesville resident who owns land on which the Laurel Hill project would be built, cautioned the commission about over-regulating wind turbines and therefore causing de facto prohibition of wind energy.
Jackson Township Supervisor Clarence Matthews said he was concerned that making wind farms a permitted use would remove municipalities’ ability to negotiate compensation packages from wind energy companies.
Matthews said he wanted to make sure that if Laurel Hill Wind Energy re-applied for a permit, the townships would be able to get the $2 million they had been promised by the company over 20 years.
Following the commission’s vote, Plaxton said he was “extemely dissappointed” and alleged the commission was “in the pocket of wind energy companies.”
Commission chairman W. E. Toner Hollick said that because the county will have to deal with the issue of wind energy in the future, it was important to better define the zoning ordinance.
Walls said it was one of the most difficult issues he has ever had to tackle in his 35-plus years as a county planner.
County commissioner Rebecca A. Burke, who attended the meeting, said the commissioners have not set a time in which they will act on the amendment.
“We have to review the final document,” Burke said.
By David Thompson
30 August 2007