“This is probably the biggest project we’ve ever had in this county or probably will ever have,” said Highland County supervisor Jerry Rexrode Tuesday, in reference to the industrial wind energy utility proposed for Allegheny Mountain.
Highland New Wind Development, LLC, owned by H.T. “Mac” McBride of Harrisonburg and his family, plans a 39- megawatt wind generation facility in western Highland. The $65 million project is estimated by county officials to generate tax revenue of about $200,000 annually over the next 20 years.
The hotly debated proposal passed the last in a series of legal challenges the end of last year and is set to move into the construction phase with county officials’ blessings.
“We need to try to mend some fences, change the dialog,” said supervisor David Blanchard. “It can only be done with some transparency. People are interested in what is going on.”
Rexrode added, “We as supervisors have had our hands tied because from the very first meeting, we had someone threaten to sue us. I feel unless she (county attorney Melissa Dowd) tells us otherwise, our hands are untied. Through openness, we can have a good project. Based on the relationship I have with HNWD, it will be a good project. Whether we agree or disagree, he (McBride) has had a lot of restrictions put on him.”
Initially, HNWD will have to file for building permits with the county, which could cost the developer about $100,000. But some of that income will be spent as the county faces the necessity of hiring outside consultants to oversee the project as it develops.
Pen Goodall, who lives beside the project site, says has seen clear cutting of 1,000 acres of forest on McBride’s farm in the past year with attendant runoff in Laurel Fork. Supervisors said it was not the responsibility of the board to do anything about that.
“McBride has done over a 1,000 acres of clear cut at Laurel Fork,” Goodall continued. “If Laurel Fork is damaged, who is going to do something about it? Laurel Fork was muddy last year. Laurel Fork is being damaged as we speak.”
“That is part of his prevention process,” Rexrode said. “If he is doing logging, that is not our responsibility. The county does not control logging operations. Hemlock has died – we have no control over that … He has permits. It is the intent of this county that he has to live up to these permits. The Department of Conservation and Recreation can fine you so much money per day.
“Someone has to have tests,” said Rexrode. “What kills birds and bats? The solution is out there. Everyone concerned wants to know what we can do to stop it. We are concerned about endangered species, but we don’t have the authority to do anything about it. McBride has to have certain permits, required by federal and state government.”
Dowd said, “There is a monitoring plan he has to comply with, overseen by the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries throughout the whole thing. It includes protecting Laurel Fork.”
Supervisor Robin Sullenberger added, “There are going to be a lot of people watching this. If they see things they see as inappropriate or illegal, I think you are going to see some action taken …”
“He is going to have an engineering firm do the design – they are going to be responsible to make sure they are going to do it right,” said Rexrode. “The intent with our board is to make sure all rules and regulations are followed.”
“You are saying it seems there is a whole lot of clearing taking place?” Blanchard asked Goodall. “It was our understanding that this place was chosen because there wouldn’t be a whole lot of clearing.”
“That is not under our control,” said Rexrode.
Dowd advised the board not to require HNWD to get a federal incidental take permit or habitat conseravation plan. Supervisors agreed it was not their place to set new conditions on the HNWD conditional use permit.
It’s not about politics anymore, said Dowd. It’s about process. And the process is that the board issued a conditional use permit and HNWD spent money based on that authorization – a legal obligation exists not to amend the agreement. (See related story).
“The state regulates everything we do. We are basically a collection agency for the state of Virginia,” said Rexrode. “They tell us what to spend and how to spend it.”
But the county can do some things about the project. Rexrode asked Virginia Department of Transportation residency administrator James White to look into building a pull off so tourists and residents could see the wind facility take shape. “I would hope we could do something permanent about making a pull off for people to look at the project,” Rexrode said.
“We could put one on U.S. 250, far west side of us, looking toward Tamarack and Red Knob,” McBride suggested.
“If we can help you in any way we will be glad to,” Rexrode told the developer.
Rexrode also spoke to the Highland County Chamber of Commerce, and said the chamber will consider promoting the utility as a tourist attraction. “I talked to chamber executive director Carolyn Pohowky,” he said. “I think the chamber is interested in a good project. It will attract tourists. Certainly we would like to have a good project. Our position as a board is to make sure it is done correct.
Wednesday, Pohowsky clarified that the chamber takes no position on the wind project at all. She said if and when the project is built, the chamber would revisit the issue of whether it served as a tourist attraction and act appropriately. “The chamber is not taking any action now to promote wind turbines as a tourist attraction,” she said.
“I met with McBride last Saturday,” Rexrode continued. “We discussed a lot of things the county is interested in. We discussed where do we go from here. It is time for the county to start healing itself.
“I specifically asked (McBride) for construction updates on a monthly basis,” he added. “I’ve heard rumors our building officials can’t handle this project. We will bring in expertise to do that. If we feel the building staff can’t handle this, we’ll look for outside help.”
McBride updated the board, saying, “We have received a certificate from the State Corporation Commission. We are working with an engineering firm. There are certain things we have got to do. We need a permit from VDOT to exit U.S. 250 to the property, that’s one of the first things. We are looking at another engineering firm to fly over the property to get map intervals better than topographic maps now provide.
“All of this sort of goes slow, we are doing everything right by the numbers.”
Tal McBride added, “We are building a Web site now. We (also) need broadband towers, that’s an issue we have got to cross.”
“You know the building permit will be in excess of $100,000,” Rexrode told them. “We’d like to have the money as soon as possible. We’ll work out something satisfactory to make it a fair fee.”
Rexrode said he has another way the county could benefit from the project. “I would like to see the county buildings and school system purchase power (from the site). I hope that is the other two supervisors’ feelings. If we are going to produce it here, let’s use it here. Whether you pay for it one place or another, it’s a paper shuffle. You’re still pulling it out of one place and putting it in another.”
Sullenberger said, “I served on a state committee for siting. Bath may serve as a pilot program if they get a (project). This (HNWD) project is going to be highly scrutinized. In spite of the fact West Virginia already has projects, this one is viewed as a bellwether project for the east coast.
“One suggestion: the Virginia Wind Energy Collaborative is doing joint venture projects,” Sullenberger continued. “As you move forward, is there a possibility you are interested in working with them, to use the project for education purposes?”
McBride replied, “I talked to Dr. Jonathan Miles (of James Madison University and VWEC). We would look forward to that. We think it is an excellent idea.”
By James Jacenich
7 February 2008
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