Commonwealth Court cleared the way Friday for part of a wind farm in Bear Creek Township, but the alternative-energy project remains on hold until the state Supreme Court rules on the other part of the plan.
Senior Judge Joseph McCloskey upheld orders by Luzerne County Judge Michael Conahan and the Bear Creek Township Zoning Hearing Board, allowing nine out of 35 wind turbines proposed for Energy Unlimited Inc.’s Penobscot Mountain wind farm.
“It’s very good news for the company. It affirms that zoning variances were acted upon properly by the township,” said Ed Shoener, project manager for Energy Unlimited.
The company wants to build nine turbines in back and 26 in front of the wind farm, to be sited on 838 acres of Theta land near Crystal Lake. Due to zoning issues, Energy Unlimited submitted plans for the nine and 26 turbines separately.
The Bear Creek Zoning Hearing Board approved a variance for the wind farm in May 2006. A residents’ group, Defend Our Watershed, filed suit against Energy Unlimited and the zoning board on grounds the company should have had the land rezoned instead of asking for a variance, the group’s attorney Bill Higgs said.
“The fact of the matter is, as far as I read the law … you can’t go out and buy a piece of property for something it’s not zoned for and then ask for a variance,” he said. “That’s exactly what Energy Unlimited did.”
There’s a five-part test for a variance, and Energy Unlimited wouldn’t qualify under any of the circumstances, Higgs believes.
Conahan upheld the zoning hearing board’s ruling in January, so Defend Our Watershed members appealed the county court decision. Defend Our Watershed now has 30 days to ask the state Supreme Court to appeal the Commonwealth Court ruling.
Higgs said group members will discuss the case and decide whether they want to appeal or not.
In the meantime, Energy Unlimited can’t start the wind farm until there is a ruling by the state Supreme Court on the front 26 turbines.
After the zoning board granted the variances, a subsequent land development plan was not approved by Bear Creek Township supervisors. In August 2006, Conahan reversed the supervisors’ 2-1 vote to deny the plan for 26 turbines. The supervisors appealed the decision to Commonwealth Court, which upheld it, then appealed that decision to the Supreme Court.
“We’re waiting to see what the Supreme Court opinion is, and then we’ll go from there,” Shoener said.
But Friday’s ruling is a crucial one for the project, he said. The Commonwealth Court made a series of findings on the substance of the project, and found it good, he said.
“Some of the findings they made were important to the community,” Shoener said. “The project won’t be detrimental to the public welfare, and they won’t impact adjoining.”
The wind farm project has the stamp of approval from all necessary government environmental agencies, he said.
“Environmentally, this project is sound and will produce a lot of clean, green energy, which this country badly needs,” Shoener said.
BY ELIZABETH SKRAPITS
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