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Wind energy project stirs questions about process  

MONTEREY – Highland New Wind Development’s proposal for an industrial wind plant here continues to surface before supervisors, and this week was no different. Owner Henry “Mac” McBride and his son Tal updated the county board on their project, and refuted claims they were clear cutting on the project site. The issue also generated fairly heated discussions on how the project will proceed.

“Nothing much has happened,” McBride told supervisors. He said he has filed for an entranceway permit with Virginia Department of Transportation for access from U.S. 250 to his Red Oak property and is awaiting a response.

Last month, McBride’s neighbor Pen Goodall raised concerns about logging on Red Oak, and Tuesday, McBride responded. At his side was Westvaco forester Rob Nelson.

“It is incorrect that we clear cut 1,000 acres of land,” said McBride. “We had two other complaints from Pen Goodall about mud in the road. It was checked out by (state) forestry people, and it just isn’t so. If there’s a problem, they need to take it to the right source. Say something to me or take it to (state forester) John Wright. I don’t think it is the (supervisors’) responsibility.”

McBride said the areas where timber was harvested were not related to the proposed wind energy development. “We have not clear cut 1,000 acres of land. That is just not so,” he said. “That would be 50 percent of our land.”

He explained that under the guidance of a Westvaco forester, trees on his property were being harvested and replanted to improve the value of the timber. Some areas have been harvested to remove pulp wood, some of it is where pines are planted, he said. “We took out spots; it looks clear cut, but it’s not,” he said. Timber that was not growing was removed, he said, to make way for replacement trees that would grow better and produce a higher quality timber. He removed trees from dry ridges where the timber was old and quality poor, he said. “We are trying to improve this thing.”

“We bought 35,500 trees to plant,” he added. “I am very proud of Red Oak Farm.”

Two to three acres were cleared behind a tin barn on Red Oak Farm in 2006, he said. Another 37 acres of beech and birch trees were removed in 2007. Forty acres of chestnut and oak were also cut on the east side of the farm, 98 more acres of beech and birch were removed on the Tamarack side, 56 acres were taken near Laurel Fork.

“We killed beech and fern so regeneration can take place,” he said. “In one 40-acre block, the fern gets so thick, it gets waist high,” McBride added. He said a total of 236 acres of timber was cut in 2006-07.

Supervisor David Blanchard said he toured Red Oak Farm last week with McBride. “I didn’t see a clear cut,” he said, adding, “It’s an emotional issue. We (supervisors) are the ones that are going to hear it first. When there is timbering taking place prior to a project (like this) people are going to get charged.”

“Of the timber cutting you have done, how much of that is on the area you intend to put the turbines on?” asked county attorney Melissa Dowd.

“Not one foot,” McBride responded.

“You had represented the (wind turbine project) would not involve cutting,” she continued.

“That’s right, not one foot,” McBride repeated.

Nelson said he had managed two properties for McBride for more than 20 years. “Activities there are well-planned, thought out, not done haphazardly,” he said. “The McBrides have a high level of forestry practice. They are making an investment a lot of other property owners are not willing to do. They are cutting for forestry reasons, not doing it for wind turbines.”

“Some time back I was accused of building a road for turbines,” McBride said. “It wasn’t near a turbine (site). I’ve read about springs being muddied. We saw that today. (A heavy rain came through Highland County on Tuesday.) It’s not coming from us.

“We took possession of this property 50 years ago April 1. It is a better property today than it was then.”

State forester John Wright said he has worked with Westvaco foresters for 20 years. “They work with loggers more closely,” he said. “We enforce the law. The types of practices that are being implemented are to regenerate oak, cherry, on and on É They (McBrides) are using the best management practices to the best of my knowledge.”

Wright said 95 percent of statewide sedimentation runoff was the result of something other than silvaculture. He added that the state forestry department accepts official complaints of illegal timbering and conducts investigations.

“If we get a lumbering complaint, we’ll come to you,” said board chairman Jerry Rexrode.

Wind project requirements

Blanchard asked if the supervisors had a list of all federal and state permits HNWD is required to obtain.

“Not to my knowledge,” said county attorney Melissa Dowd. She said negotiations on what permits would be required were not yet completed by the state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Blanchard asked whether supervisors should ask DGIF and USFWS to brief the county as the project moves along, noting the conditional use permit requires HNWD to get “everything they are required to get.”

“If we have received anything on permits (required), I am not aware of it,” said Mac McBride.

“It is our responsibility to find out,” said Blanchard.

“It is not up to individual agencies,” said Tal McBride. “It is up to the Department of Environmental Quality to (determine the permits required).”

Supervisor Robin Sullenberger said, “They will bundle the permits.”

Dowd agreed. “It is through the Department of Environmental Quality, not DGIF. DGIF goes to DEQ. She said ultimately, though, it was up to the State Corporation Commission to determine what permits will be required.

“Some of that kind of information is just the kind of information the public is looking for,” said Blanchard. “It is an emotional issue.”

Rexrode said, “When I met with HNWD in Harrisonburg it was to keep the public properly informed. The facts need to be out there, not misinformation.” He said, for example, that Goodall’s claim 1,000 acres of Red Oak Farm had been clear cut was misinformation.

Supervisors allow discussion, questions on wind project

During the public comment period, when people are allowed five minutes to address the board, Rexrode, as chairman, allowed a more open-ended question and answer session in spite of Dowd’s objections. “People need to vent,” Rexrode said.

Rick Webb of Mustoe asked the board to conduct a survey of the citizens of Highland County to objectively determine the will of the people on this issue. “It’s a simple question: Do we want to prevent or do we want to allow additional wind energy development on Highland County ridges?”

Webb offered the survey suggestion in the spirit of “moving on and healing division” in the county, paraphrasing a statement Rexrode made earlier in the year. Webb pointed out Rexrode was the only one of the current supervisors who had voted to approve the project, and it was perhaps time to revisit the issue.

Supervisor Robin Sullenberger said, “We’ve used surveys effectively in the county. Would I consider it? I’ll consider it.”

Blanchard said, “I am willing to entertain (a survey), talk to the administrator about costs, and see what information we can get out of (a survey).”

Rexrode is opposed to conducting a survey. “That’s why you have elected officials,” he said, implying it was the officials’ responsibility to make decisions, not consult surveys. “You do not need a public survey on issues that come up. That’s what you were elected to deal with.”

Webb also asked about a statement made recently by HNWD’s attorney John Flora. “Have you advised Mr. Flora that two-thirds of the people support the proposed wind project?”

Webb explained he had attended a meeting of the Sierra Club in Harrisonburg where Flora stated that the majority of the people in Highland support the proposed wind project. “In fact, he (Flora) said that only one-third of the people in Highland oppose the project and that the other two-thirds support the project,” Webb said. “He stated that he obtained this information from the board of supervisors and the county administrator.”

The issue of support is significant as McBride pursues investors and the Sierra Club is considering a position on the issue, Webb added.

Supervisors said they did not tell Flora two-thirds of Highlanders support the proposed utility.

Rexrode said he believed those opposed and those in favor of project were about even. He referred to a petition circulated by citizens before the conditional use permit was issued, and said the board considered that in its deliberations about the permit. Rexrode’s conclusion about the petition was that it represented only about 27 percent of registered voters in Highland County. Most of the signatures on the petition were not citizens of Highland, Rexrode said. He said about 40 percent of Highland landowners were opposed to the project.

“It depends on who you associate with,” Rexrode said. “It depends on who you talk to. I’m sure Mr. Flora got his information from surveys given to the board of supervisors. We looked at registered voters and who was not registered voters. We can substantiate exactly the figures we were given.”

Webb insisted that since there was a disagreement about the information, an objective survey was needed.

“If this board wishes to have a survey, that is up to this board. It is not up to me (alone),” said Rexrode.

He added he had been elected to office by voters in Highland. “They didn’t have to. I appreciate that they did. I think they did because I do what I think is best for the county. We are going on with this project. Get over it.”

“That’s not going to happen,” Webb replied.

“I would never put this out there, that this county was for or against wind turbines,” Blanchard added. “We don’t need to be beating this point anymore.”

Blanchard referred to an article in last Sunday’s Staunton News Leader where Frank Maisano, a spokesman for McBride and wind energy companies all over the East, had said Highland has difficulty with its tax base.

“I don’t like to be held hostage,” said Blanchard. “We don’t have great revenue streams, but (I don’t appreciate) outside people saying they can save us. Another quote (from Maisano) I disagree with is that the tax money from the wind turbines is money out of thin air. There is no money out of thin air.”

Erosion and sediment control

Dan Foster, former Mountain Soil and Water Conservation District representative, said he learned the county was in violation of erosion and sediment control regulations. “The county failed with flying colors,” he said.

The concern is that without a proper plan for erosion and sediment control, the wind utility construction could cause problems downstream.

Rexrode acknowledged the county was on probation for problems with new regulations. “I know where you are coming from,” he said. “We lack expertise. I admitted that. We plan on bringing engineers on board who have that expertise (to assist in reviewing the facility). What we are saying is, we are aware of it É and we are taking actions to correct it.”

“Can the conditional use permit be amended to protect downstream landowners?” Foster asked.

“No,” Sullenberger responded.

When the conditional use permit was issued to HNWD, the county was in compliance with the erosion sediment control regulations. Now, it is not, said Foster.

Rexrode said he was in personal noncompliance with the regulations two years ago when the rules changed, but made adjustments to conform.

Both Rexrode and Blanchard agreed compliance was an issue they would address. “We are going to look at it. Point well taken,” said Blanchard.

Foster also said no one in the county has had an opportunity to review and comment on a site plan and asked supervisors to provide that opportunity.

Rexrode was also asked about a statement he made recently indicating Highland had already hired an engineer, and whether the county would budget for the experts it hires to review the project.

“We have an engineer on staff, Tom Atkeson, to review the soil erosion drawings. If it becomes too overwhelming, we’ll look to outside engineering, such as Mattern & Craig. We will not budget extra for it at this time. The engineer has to be a licensed P.E. for the state of Virginia,” Rexrode explained.

The Recorder asked Rexrode about how the board intends to deal with future wind utilities in the comprehensive plan.

“The comprehensive plan needs to be revised to show where do you want wind energy in Highland County and whether you do want it,” Rexrode replied. “The board of supervisors have done voted to have it, it’s went through the process. I think it needs to be put in the comprehensive plan where you want it. It’s never been my intent or any of the board’s intent to have wind turbines scattered throughout the county. I think you have good sites and you have bad sites. I think you can now start defining that somewhat and move forward with the problem.”

Asked about his discussions with McBride, Rexrode said when he met with McBride in Harrisonburg to discuss wind turbines last month, he spoke only for himself, not for the board. “I met with Mr. McBride to talk to him about keeping the county informed. I think that is one of the responsibilities of the chairman of the board of supervisors,” he said.

By James Jacenich
Staff Writer

The Recorder

6 March 2008

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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