Plans for the state’s first commercial wind farm cleared a major hurdle Friday when the Virginia Supreme Court rejected three challenges from neighboring residents in Highland County.
The ruling means Highland New Wind Development LLC is one step closer to building as many as 22 turbines atop two Allegheny Mountain ridges in Highland County, about six hours from Norfolk on the West Virginia border.
The turbines, each standing 400 feet tall, would generate enough electricity to power more than 12,000 homes per year, according to plans.
“Virginia must have renewable power from wind, and Highland County will be where the road to a cleaner, renewable-energy future in Virginia begins,” said Frank Maisano, a spokesman for the developer.
Maisano said the ruling is especially poignant given that Gov. Timothy M. Kaine released his 10-year energy plan earlier this week that included support for wind power, among other alternative and traditional sources.
“With the right controls in place, yes, we would think the Highland County project can be done,” said Steven Walz, Kaine’s senior adviser on energy policy.
Opponents fear the $65 million project will ruin their scenic views of the Alleghenys, kill rare bats and birds, and lead to more wind developments on the mountainous regions along the Virginia-West Virginia border.
In court, opponents argued that Highland County officials erred several ways in approving the wind farm in 2005 and urged that the decisions be reversed.
The county should not have granted a variance to its own height restriction and deviated significantly from the local comprehensive plan, the opponents said.
Such claims were rejected last year in Circuit Court, and on Friday, the Supreme Court threw out the challenges, too – but on more technical grounds.
The high court ruled that opponents did not sue the correct governing body – the Highland County Board of Supervisors – within 30 days of its approval of the wind project.
The court said the plaintiffs were “third parties” without legal standing to bring their cases in the first place because they were not directly affected by the county’s actions.
“Obviously I think this is just terrible,” said Patti Reum, who runs the Bear Mountain Farm and Wilderness Retreat, about two miles from the development sites.
She and her husband, Tom Brody, filed suit against the county and developer. They worry the proposed turbines will damage a get-away-from-it-all atmosphere that draws visitors to their retreat. “We’re very upset,” Reum said.
Before construction can begin, the developer still needs a certificate from the State Corporation Commission.
A hearing examiner gave preliminary approval earlier this year. More details must be ironed out before final approval is granted, said John Flora, an attorney for Highland New Wind Development.
“It’s great news for us, and we’re very relieved,” Flora said Friday.“But we’ve got more work ahead.”
By Scott Harper
14 September 2007