A decision by the Fayette County commissioners to intervene in a lawsuit about a proposed wind turbine project and how the proceeds of the impending hotel tax will be distributed dominated public comment during Thursday’s monthly meeting.
Numerous people wearing “Fayette TNT, Trees Not Turbines” shirts spoke to the commissioners to express concern about a decision by Commissioners Vincent Zapotosky and Angela M. Zimmerlink to intervene in the case that involves appeal of denial that would have allowed construction of 18 wind-powered turbines in Georges and Springhill townships.
Eric Williams, whose property is located near one of the proposed turbines, said he is not opposed to the project as a whole, but would like the company to consider moving a turbine away from homes.
“I don’t want to raise my 4 1/2-year-old daughter in the shadow of a turbine,” Williams said.
Earlier this month, Zapotosky and Zimmerlink directed solicitor Joseph E. Ferens Jr. to file a motion to intervene and Ferens explained that by filing the motion, he was essentially petitioning the court on behalf of the commissioners to ensure that the zoning board did what it is charged to do under the law.
Zimmerlink said she wanted the notice filed to ensure the zoning ordinance was properly enforced and to confirm that the zoning board didn’t act in a legislative manner.
Commissioner Vincent A. Vicites voted against the action, saying it set a bad precedent.
Zapotosky said he wanted to intervene to ensure the zoning board did what it was supposed to do.
Williams said he would like the commissioners to consider the potential losers and winners and make everyone winners.
Last month, PPM Atlantic Renewable Energy Corp., based in Portland, Ore., filed an appeal regarding the denial of a special exception request, saying the county zoning board improperly denied the request. The zoning ordinance allows windmills of up to 250 feet in height, but the current industry standards are now 262 feet.
The denial of a special exception for a wind-powered, electricity-generating facility and a variance from height and setback requirements affects a significant portion of a project called the South Chestnut Windpower Project. The plan included construction of a total of 24 wind-powered turbines in Georges, Springhill and Wharton townships.
Four days of testimony was held on the matter, and people both in favor of and against the project testified.
Those who testified included company officials and neighbors, as well as owners of Laurel Caverns in Wharton Township, who expressed concern that locating the windmills at the site could potentially kill the entire bat population at the caverns.
All of the windmills were to be located on land zoned A-1, agricultural/rural.
Several other people also spoke during Thursday’s meeting, some in favor of the wind turbine project, and some against.
Ron Gallo said that he believes by the commissioners intervening, they are saying the zoning board was incompetent.
Zapotosky told Gallo not to put words in his mouth, adding that he did not say that, he merely felt the zoning board may have “legislatively ruled.”
Regarding the 3 percent hotel occupancy tax, which takes effect on July 1, Zapotosky said the memorandum of understanding has been drawn up, and it includes provisions for a grant program but not the “entire grant program.”
Although an ordinance to enact a hotel tax has been initiated, how the money will be allocated must be approved.
In March, Zapotosky and Vicites voted to enact the ordinance, with Zimmerlink voting against it. The ordinance names the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau (LHVB) as the recognized tourist promotion agency to use the money distributed to it for marketing the area served by the agency as a destination for leisure and business travel. The ordinance stipulates that the county treasurer will collect the tax and keep the lesser of 2 percent collected, or $40,000, for an administration fee for collection of the tax. Enacting the tax in Fayette County is expected to bring in $750,000 annually.
All remaining revenue is to be distributed to the LHVB within 60 days, according to the ordinance.
Tentatively, a plan backed by Zapotosky and Vicites is to allocate 50 percent of the proceeds to the LHVB to regionally market the county ($375,000, if $750,000 is generated); use 25 percent annually for five years to Penn State Fayette, the Eberly Campus, to establish a hospitality restaurant management program like the one at the main campus ($187,500, if $750,000 is generated), and to use 25 percent for a grant program for nonprofit tourism organizations for marketing and not for capital improvements ($187,500, if $750,000 is collected.)
Zimmerlink voted against implementing the tax but then proposed a different plan after the motion was passed to start the process.
Zimmerlink’s proposal included establishing a Fayette County Tourism Promotion Agency instead of using LHVB for county promotion while still partnering with LHVB for a fee.
Ralph Mazza said Thursday he is concerned about implementing a program at Penn State and then getting stuck with it.
Zapotosky said it would be evaluated annually.
“We are always a day late and dollar short in terms of a progressive move in Fayette County,” Zapotosky said, adding that he didn’t want that to happen this time.
He said he would like to have a third vote for the memorandum of understanding. Zimmerlink said Zapotosky and Vicites are going to spend the money how they see fit.
Zapotosky replied that he finds it humorous that Zimmerlink opposed the ordinance and then wants to say how to spend the money.
Zapotosky said one the memorandum of understanding is adopted, a board will be put in place to develop grant guidelines.
By Amy Zalar
23 May 2008
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