The state Supreme Court Monday denied the efforts of state and local anti-windfarm activists and upheld two decisions by the Public Service Commission that granted a conditional building permit in 2006 for a $300 million Greenbrier County windfarm.
The court’s landmark decision, the first to test the PSC’s new siting certificate regulations, largely focused on the PSC’s jurisdiction to grant the permit and could significantly impact the future of wind energy in West Virginia.
During oral argument before the high court in January, Mountain Communities for Responsible Energy and Alicia and Jeffrey Eisenbeiss argued the PSC improperly granted the permit to Chicago-based Invenergy and its Beech Ridge windfarm. They argued, among other things, that the PSC ignored its own regulations and did not properly weigh the interests of the community, that Beech Ridge created a faulty map of the project and that property values would be significantly harmed if 124 wind turbines were built on a 23-mile stretch of forested ridges primarily owned by MeadWestvaco.
The court issued the 22-page opinion “per curiam” – by the court as a whole – rather than having a single justice write the decision.
“Upon reviewing the voluminous record before us, we believe that the Commission did not ignore or revise its rules, nor did the Commission improperly interpret an unambiguous regulation,” the court said. “With regard to MCRE’s concerns surrounding the map supplied by Beech Ridge … the Commission made a reasoned decision.”
MCRE argued Beech Ridge’s map failed to include four churches, several private cemeteries, roads, and other landmarks – critical information needed by the PSC before issuing a permit.
“Likewise, we disagree with MCRE’s contention that Beech Ridge’s failure to include every required designation … on its five-mile map prohibited the Commission from properly determining the complete impact the proposed project would have on local communities,” the opinion said.
Dave Groberg, Invenergy’s director of business development, applauded Monday’s decision, but made it clear that more hearings must be held prior to breaking any ground in Greenbrier County. Groberg said the appeals have set the project back nearly two years and Invenergy has invested over $1 million in the windfarm to date. Invenergy’s application with the PSC was first filed in September 2005.
“We still have to demonstrate that we have complied with all of the PSC’s preconstruction conditions, and that requires a hearing,” Groberg said by phone late Monday.
Earlier in the day, Groberg released a statement saying the project “is important to the economy of Greenbrier County.” The project is on track to create more than 200 temporary construction jobs and 15 to 20 permanent jobs, with at least $400,000 in taxes going to the Greenbrier County Commission and $200,000 to the state.
“The PSC did an exhaustive and comprehensive job in its review of our project,” Groberg said. “We appreciate the support we have received from the citizens of that region and from all around West Virginia.”
MCRE spokesman Michael Rosolina said his group is contemplating future actions against Invenergy. To date, the grassroots campaign has spent more than $60,000 in their fight against the windfarm.
“I think that everyone is disappointed with the state Supreme court decision and we will be consulting with our lawyers to see what our next step will be,” Rosolina said by phone Monday. “I don’t think this is the last word on anything. It’s discouraging news, but I don’t see that anyone is going to give up at this point.”
“We are disappointed but not surprised by the decision today,” Jeffrey Eisenbeiss said by phone Monday. “The intoxicating incense of speculation has perfumed through our state with this decision.”
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The PSC granted the building permit to Beech Ridge in 2006, saying the nation’s need for clean, renewable energy outweighed any negative aspects of the project. The high court also agreed with this analysis.
“The Commission recognized the long-term benefits to the State’s residents in having West Virginia participate responsibly in the electric industry as well as ensuring the availability of electricity to the State’s residents,” the opinion said.
Other important statements in the opinion include:
– “The Commission determined that in the areas of tourism and property values, there was never any concrete evidence introduced showing any negative impact. In regard to tourism, the only statements received were from intervenors who opposed the project and it found that such testimony amounted to conjecture and lacked foundation.”
– “Only Beech Ridge submitted a verified study on the potential effect on property values … it concluded … the turbines would have no effect on property values.”
– “The Commission concluded that the visual impact of the project was limited almost entirely to private residences.”
In its summary, the court concluded the PSC acted within its statutory authority by determining that it was reasonable to grant a siting certificate to Beech Ridge.
Wind developer spokesman Frank Maisano called the decision a “huge victory” and said it could pave the way for more windfarms in West Virginia and across the Mid-Atlantic region.
“This case will likely impact many others in the Mid-Atlantic region,” Maisano said in a statement Monday. “The decision respects the thoughtful and detailed work of the PSC and its staff and proves that you can’t be opposed to these projects because you don’t like them.”
23 June 2008
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