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Residents say proposed wind farm would mar beauty of Hill Country  

FREDERICKSBURG – On a sparkling fall day in this Hill Country town, all seems right with the world. The sky is a bright blue bowl and monarch butterflies float by on a soft breeze. Free-spending tourists throng Main Street, boosting an already healthy economy.

But some Gillespie County residents are concerned that their Hill Country idyll is in jeopardy. Their worries focus on a movement that’s usually viewed as highly desirable: the building of wind farms to produce electricity.

A new organization, Save Our Scenic Hill Country, says an energy company seeks to build wind turbines north of Fredericksburg. The group fears the Hill Country’s serenity and scenic vistas – everything that makes it a beloved part of Texas – are in danger of being marred by 400-foot-high wind turbines.

One wind company obtained leases to build wind turbines within site of Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, a popular hiking and camping spot that borders Gillespie and Llano counties.

The company since has pulled out, but its plans unnerved area residents. And another company has expressed an interest in developing a wind farm in the area, although it hasn’t made its plans public.

Wind-farm developers “try to portray themselves as part of the green revolution,” said Leo Tynan, another founder of the group. “But when you see where wind turbines have lined a ridge top, they obliterate the landscape.”

“For me, this is about what wind power does to the land,” said Robert Weatherford, a founder of Save Our Scenic Hill Country who lives in northern Gillespie County.

Founders of the group say they fear wind turbines will hurt tourism, depress property values and make Gillespie County a less desirable place to live. They say they respect individual property rights. “We want to make sure that landowners make an informed decision,” Weatherford said.

The organization has been shocked to learn there’s no state or federal oversight governing wind farms.

Construction of wind farms, the group contends, is being pushed by generous subsidies and tax breaks, not because the Hill Country is windy. It isn’t. Studies of wind power by the operator of the state’s electric grid ranked Gillespie County low in a statewide survey of wind power.

“You’ve got to ask why the wind companies are eager to build in a low-wind area,” Tynan said. “It’s because of the subsidies, depreciation and tax write-offs. They can make a profit just by building it.”

While the group understands landowners may need the income they receive from a turbine lease, some income would depend on how much electricity the wind generates. “And if there’s not a lot of wind, the income is uncertain,” Weatherford said.

Conservationists and landowners in other parts of Texas also are questioning the effect of wind turbines on land and wildlife.

Members of Bat Conservation International say turbines built in the Hill Country could have serious consequences for the largest remaining bat colonies in the world. Harming bats would damage Texas agriculture because bats help control insect populations, said the group, whose view is endorsed by the vice president of the National Audubon Society and by the state director of the Nature Conservancy.

In South Texas, environmentalists and landowners say plans to build wind turbines in a remote part of the Kenedy Ranch would harm migrating birds and species that live on the ranch’s coastal flatlands.

In Gillespie County, plans by energy companies to build turbines “caught everybody by surprise,” Tynan said. “Our first reaction was, why here? We thought West Texas was the preferred location.”

And members of Save Our Scenic Hill Country have been shocked to learn there are no state or federal rules regarding where wind turbines are built.

“How can they have no accountability to any government organization or to anybody?” Tynan said. “In Gillespie you have to jump through more hoops to put a septic tank on your property than a $200 million wind farm. You can’t put a septic near your neighbor, but you can put a wind farm along a fence line.”

Local residents began to take notice when AES Wind Generation of San Diego, Calif., approached some landowners about signing leases allowing AES to build turbines on their property. AES since has withdrawn, saying publicly that it was concerned about local opposition to its plans.

Now, though, AES has been replaced by Padoma Wind Power LLC, a unit of New Jersey-based NRG Energy Inc., which is familiar to San Antonians as CPS Energy’s partner in the South Texas Project, a nuclear power plant.

NRG has announced two wind-farm projects for West Texas and is looking “for additional locations that would be optimal for wind generation,” NRG spokesman Dave Knox said in an e-mailed statement.

Possible sites include one in Gillespie County, Knox added, where “we are currently in a very early stage of gathering information to determine if a project would be viable.”

No decision has been made, but NRG will take local community concerns into account, Knox said.

Padoma officials met recently with the mayor of Fredericksburg, a city council member, and with several local business leaders.

“Our interest was to dissuade them from coming here,” said Greg Snelgrove, executive director of the Gillespie County Economic Development Commission, who was present at the meeting. “We are very concerned about what wind farms would do to the aesthetic content of the Texas Hill Country and tourism.”

Snelgrove added that turbines could mar the experience at Enchanted Rock, a huge pink granite dome that juts 425 feet above Big Sandy Creek. It area drew 145,000 paid visitors last year, Texas Parks and Wildlife figures show.

“AES was forthright with us and showed us an actual map of their layout. They were going to be within 2 miles of Enchanted Rock,” Snelgrove said. “We don’t know about Padoma.

“If we aren’t able to be persuasive with NRG and they don’t call Padoma off, there will be extraordinary pressure brought to bear on our (political) leadership,” Snelgrove said.

He said it wouldn’t surprise him to see citizens seek an injunction “to stop everything until the state of Texas has an opportunity to deliberately look at the economics and (site) issues dealing with this.”

The members of Save Our Scenic Hill Country are clamoring for Padoma to say more about its plans.

“Show us something,” Tynan said. “If the Hill Country of Texas is truly a gem, then I’d think all of Texas would be concerned about this.”

By Vicki Vaughan

Express-News

15 November 2007

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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