November 29, 2007

Trying to catch the windfall

John Roth stood on a mist-shrouded ridge above the Western Maryland farm where his grandfather first plowed the rocky soil in 1892.

Beside him, a wind-speed gauge spun on a pole. It is here, atop one of the state’s highest places – Roth Rock, named after his family – that a developer wants to build Maryland’s first wind farm.

The $75 million, 20-turbine Roth Rock Wind Power Project could bring Roth, 69, enough money to retire and keep the farm where he and his father were born.

But it has also made Roth a lightning rod for criticism in Garrett County, which is roiled by an intense debate over the merits of wind power.

Some local residents worry that the 40-story industrial machines would mar the scenic wooded hillsides on which Western Maryland’s tourist economy depends.

Many others, including Roth’s immediate neighbors, defend his right to do what he wants with his land. Some see the battered cattleman as a leader in the drive toward a cleaner energy future.

While others debate the project in broad terms – saving Earth’s climate versus destroying the appearance of Western Maryland – Roth looks at the question as a deeply personal matter.

The self-deprecating bachelor says he’ll have to sell the 88-acre farm where he grows corn and raises cows unless he can switch from old-fashioned agriculture to 21st-century wind farming.

His federal tax returns show that his adjusted gross income in 2006 was $11,110. That’s so little money, he says, that he fears he’ll have to sell his house and move to a nursing home. Under a contract he signed with the Annapolis-based Synergics wind development company in 2004, he could receive $15,000 to $20,000 a year by allowing the firm to use 23 acres of his land as the site for three turbines. Roth would get 2 percent of the revenue created by generating enough electricity to light about 2,600 homes. The whole project is expected to power 17,520 homes.

A wind gauge has been raised on Roth’s land, near Oakland, but the rest of the project wouldn’t be built until 2008 or 2009, if Synergics receives federal, state and local permits.

“If I had an extra $15,000 a year? My, my, my, I could stay on my farm and live like a common person, instead of a hermit,” he said, strolling past the barn his grandfather built.

“If they don’t approve the wind turbines, I’ll have to sell the place and live off the income. But I don’t ever want to do that,” he said. “It’s my desire to finish out my days here. I would rather let coyotes eat me than go into a nursing home.”

During a meeting at Southern Garrett High School in Oakland about two years ago, many more people in the crowd of about 100 spoke against the wind farm than for it, he recalled. But Roth stepped up to the microphone and said he had a right to do what he wants with his family’s farm.

“This is privately owned land,” he said. “It ain’t no national forest or state park.”

Wayne L. Rogers, president of Synergics, said the state’s first wind turbines will start rising late next year, if federal, state and Garrett County governments sign off on building-related permits.

The project crossed its biggest hurdle last November, when the proposal was approved by the Maryland Public Service Commission. Then it was stalled by appeals from activists and restrictions imposed by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The state agency said Synergics couldn’t build the nearly 400-foot turbines on part of the ridge that shelters threatened species such as the Allegheny woodrat and mourning warbler.

Rogers, a former chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party, said these objections were rendered “moot” by a new state law passed by the legislature this year to streamline the review process for wind turbines. It was sponsored by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, also a Democrat.

“We can proceed,” said Rogers, who is working with Roth and three other landowners. “We will be generating energy in a sustainable way.”

The political assistance from one Democratic Party leader to another galled some local opponents of the wind farm, including John Culp, an accountant in the nearby town of Oakland. “It was a controversial issue anyway, and that just was like sticking it in our eye,” he said.

Bob Watson, an attorney in the Deep Creek Lake area, said he worries that land values will drop as people seeking vacation homes in the mountains are driven away by the whirling machines. “The turbines are a form of pollution that turn a beautiful landscape into an industrial landscape,” said Watson. “You might as well be living in New Jersey.”

Many of the neighbors who live around Roth support the project. “Ain’t nothing up on that ridge save rocks, snakes and bears, so what’s the harm?” said Forrest Bachtel, a dairy farmer.

Garrett County Commissioner Dennis G. Glotfelty estimated that 70 percent of county residents support the wind farm, while about 30 percent oppose it. The county stands to get about $1 million a year in taxes, he said.

The wiry, upbeat Roth laughs off the arguments over the proposal. “If they’re worried about their view while driving up here, well, they should just keep their eyes on the road,” he said.

His joviality hides the fact that he has had a hard life. When he was 14, his father died of a heart attack on his tractor. John never married, running a dairy farm with his mother for years, before he suffered a heart attack at age 37. He had to cut back his physical activity and stop milking. He spent years caring for his blind and ailing mother before she died on Christmas Eve 2001. The next year, he nearly lost his left hand. A rag he was holding got snagged on the drive shaft of a tractor, winding the cloth tighter and tighter. To escape, he had to rip half his finger off, exposing the bone.

With the extra cash from the wind farm, Roth said, he hopes to find a little pleasure in his final days. He wants to take a little more time off for hunting.

“There are a lot of precious memories for me here on the farm, like hunting every Saturday after Thanksgiving,” he said, smiling. “Those turbines would allow me to keeping living here with those memories. And I don’t even think they’d scare away the deer.”

By Tom Pelton | Sun reporter

Baltimore Sun

29 November 2007

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