MONTEREY – There is no industry here in Highland County, a scenic outpost that local boosters call “Virginia’s Switzerland.” Just farming, timbering, some tourism and the mountains.
And, of course, the wind.
Lots of wind.
Out here in the Allegheny Mountains, snug to the West Virginia line, the first commercial wind farm in Virginia is planned. As many as 22 turbines, each as tall as the Statue of Liberty, would churn out enough clean energy to power more than 12,000 homes a year, according to plans.
If approved by regulators, it would be the highest wind development on the East Coast, atop two mountain ridges more than 4,200 feet in elevation.
The $65 million green-energy project has become the biggest, most controversial issue to hit the county’s 2,500 residents in a generation, with petition drives, marathon public hearings and an organized opposition.
The ferocity of local opinions against the project has raised questions about Virginia’s future as a wind-energy producer, with surrounding counties unsure about opening their mountaintops to investors, too.
The debate also comes as entrepreneurs in other states are rushing to erect turbines, take advantage of federal tax credits and create electricity without the emissions linked to global warming.
The American Wind Energy Association reports that 2007 will be a record year for generating power this alternative way, eclipsing the previous one-year record, set in 2006. Projects have been completed so far this year in Texas, Illinois, Colorado, Iowa, New York and Minnesota.
Thirty-three states had at least one wind farm operating at the beginning of 2007, according to industry statistics – but almost none in the South.
“If not here, then where?” asked John Flora, an attorney for Highland New Wind Development LLC, the start up company behind the Virginia proposal.
“This is the best place to put one,” Flora said, “yet we’ve been challenged and sued at every turn.” Project opponents say they are not against wind energy in general, just not at this location.
Mostly, they fear the loss of their bucolic splendor and lament what they foresee as ruined mountain scenery and the end of a last-frontier ethic.
“Once you allow this in, I’m scared to death you’re going to see the rapid industrialization of this county and the rest of our pristine mountains,” said Patti Reum, who runs a wilderness retreat outside Monterey, the county seat.
“People come here to get away from it all,” said her husband, Tom Brody. “You put turbines up here and we won’t have that anymore. It’s over. Gone.”
A similar battle cry, of lost natural beauty, has driven a higher-profile fight in Massachusetts, where 140 turbines are planned in Nantucket Sound near million-dollar vacation homes.
Off Virginia’s Eastern Shore, a smaller ocean-wind farm was proposed in 2002. While not rejected outright by local residents, it ran into problems with the Navy, bird enthusiasts, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before quietly dying two years later.
Highland residents also are not happy with how county officials handled – and approved – local permits for the project, expected to cover about 200 acres of private property. The head of the main opposition group, Randy Richardson, is running for a seat on the local Board of Supervisors and hopes to reverse those earlier decisions – or at least stop more wind proposals that he and others believe will soon be coming.
Richardson, who also sells real estate in the area, said inquiries about properties have slowed in the wake of the wind debate – a fact that has led the local Chamber of Commerce to speak against the project as well.
Opponents also worry about rare bats and migrating birds – including bald eagles and golden eagles – being frappeed by giant whirling blades. The endangered Northern flying squirrel and many caves that lie beneath the rocky landscape might be harmed as well, they argue.
The man behind the project is Henry T. “Mac” McBride Jr., a retired turkey farmer. At 80, he lives outside the county, in Harrisonburg.
Since 1958, he has owned the two mountains where the turbines would be set, and he keeps a ranch home at the foot of one, Red Oak Knob. He met his wife up here and says one of his primary goals is to make enough money to keep the 4,000 acres he owns in Highland County in the hands of his children.
During a recent tour of his ridgeline properties, McBride said he has lost longtime friends over the dispute and even received a death threat.
“Given the condition of the world, with our reliance on fossil fuels and with global warming becoming a big issue, I thought people would see this as a good project and support it,” McBride said. “I sure was wrong about that.”
So far, McBride said he and his family have spent nearly $2 million in pursuit of government permits to build the 400-foot-tall towers. The money has gone to lawyers, scientific consultants, surveyors and engineers, among others.
The county Board of Supervisors approved the project with a conditional-use permit in July 2005 , by a 2-1 vote, which left some in the audience weeping.
The decision, coming a year after McBride applied for county approval, was immediately challenged in court. It was upheld there, then appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court. On Friday, the court ruled in favor of McBride.
Board Supervisor Don “Robin” Sullenberger cast the lone “no” vote. Interestingly, it was Sullenberger who, as CEO of the Shenandoah Valley Partnership, an economic development group, introduced McBride to the appropriate county officials.
In an interview, Sullenberger said he was mostly worried about size and precedent.
He noted how, during a fact-finding trip to Germany, windmills there were smaller and dedicated to producing energy for local or regional use – not like the behemoths proposed in tiny Highland County, which would feed electricity into a giant grid serving multiple states.
According to international records from 2004, Germany was the largest producer of wind-generated electricity in the world, followed by Spain and then the United States.
Sullenberger also said he was uncomfortable with a lack of guidance from state or federal agencies on how to adequately assess all the permitting factors. “All of this is so new, there weren’t really any guidelines for us to follow,” he said. “I didn’t like us playing the role of guinea pig.”
Board Supervisor Jerry A. Rexrode said he reached his decision to vote “yes” about three hours before the 2005 meeting.
“This will be good for this community,” Rexrode said, nothing that the wind farm would become the largest taxpayer in the county, contributing about $200,000 a year. The county’s annual budget is about $6 million.
Rexrode also thought opponents were missing a bigger picture.
“We know we need green energy,” he said, “but everywhere we propose putting up green energy, it’s ‘Not in my backyard.’ If that’s the attitude, we’ll never get out of the mess we’re in.”
The State Corporation Commission also must approve the project as a new electric utility.
After several public meetings, including one in Monterey that lasted from 6 p.m. until 3 a.m., a hearing examiner recommended preliminary approval, though many details still must be ironed out. Those include post-construction monitoring requirements of killed birds and bats.
Scientists seem split on the project as well, their conflicting opinions apparent during th e commission meetings.
Rick Webb, a University of Virginia scientist and Highland County resident, testified that the project presents “a risk of unacceptable environmental harm and … that the potential benefits of the project are minimal.”
Webb also was a member of National Academies of Science panel that studied wind generation in the United States. The panel issued its report in May , concluding that wind-energy capacity has more than quadrupled from 2000 to 2006 but lacks sufficient guidelines and regulation.
Jonathan Miles, a James Madison University professor and wind researcher, supported the project. It will “solidify the message that Virginia can indeed lead the way toward energy independence and a broader, cleaner, more secure and more cost-effective energy portfolio,” Miles testified.
The closest commercial windmill to Virginia is about 90 minutes from Highland County, in West Virginia.
County officials visited the turbines, as did opponents.
Not surprisingly, they came away with vastly different opinions.
“I thought they were fascinating,” County Administrator Roberta Lambert said. “There was no noise and no evidence that they were hurting business or tourism. Personally, I kind of liked them.”
“They made me sick,” said Patti Reum, who runs the wilderness retreat in Highland County. “They ruined those beautiful mountains. And for what? A drop of electricity that probably will be used in New Jersey as a renewable-energy credit.”
Standing atop one of his ridges, McBride said he has seen the West Virginia turbines, too. He has heard negative reactions to them, including the criticism from Reum, who lives about two miles from his ranch home.
But someone has to go first if change is ever to come, he said.
“If you don’t start, you’ll never even get a drop in the bucket,” McBride said. “And, of course, you’ll never be able to fill the bucket.”
By Scott Harper
16 September 2007
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