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Compromise may clear way for windmills

In an effort to satisfy the concerns of neighbors and officials affected by a wind turbine project in Georges and Springhill townships, the company has offered concessions in the form of removing some turbines from its list and changing the location of other proposed windmills.

PPM Atlantic Renewable Energy Corp. also has drafted an agreement that would establish a scholarship fund for local students.

A proposed settlement stipulation was drafted by attorneys by numerous parties and has been given to Fayette County officials to distribute and sign.

Daniel Rullo, attorney for PPM, said Tuesday the agreement is a demonstration the company is willing to work with the county. He said the company has taken the position the project is good for the county in terms of clean energy and jobs.

“We felt we met all of the requirements the zoning ordinance imposed on are confident the judge will overturn this but to avoid going though the process, we addressed any concerns anyone has,” Rullo said of the settlement stipulation.

The proposed settlement stipulation also includes an agreement to pay at least $12,000 a year for 25 years for a scholarship fund for Fayette County students.

PPM Atlantic/Iberdrola Renewables, based in Portland, Ore., filed an appeal in April regarding the denial of a special exception request by the Fayette County Zoning Hearing Board, saying the county zoning board improperly denied the request. The zoning ordinance allows windmills as tall as 250 feet, but the current industry standards for turbines are now 262 feet.

The denial issued in February 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.

Fayette County Commission Chairman Vincent Zapotosky said he was in favor of the proposed settlement, which he said addresses the concerns of neighboring property owners as well as gives something back to the community, namely the scholarship donation.

“To me its another good faith gesture,” Zapotosky said of the addition of the scholarship amount in the agreement. “The company traditionally goes into the community and I encouraged them to do that in this case. This is progress.”

Zapotosky said the first signatures he wants to see are those of the affected residents.

Zapotosky said county solicitor Joseph E. Ferens Jr. would have to look at the language of the agreement before signing it to ensure it is legal.

Ferens said Monday that he had not yet seen the agreement and could not comment on it.

Commissioner Angela M. Zimmerlink, who joined Zapotosky in voting to for the county to intervene in the case to ensure the zoning board did what it was charged to do by following the zoning ordinance, isn’t sold on the agreement.

“While I applaud PPM Atlantic for wanting to give something back to the community I think it is inappropriate for the commissioners to accept a gratuity as part of a settlement to a ZHB dispute,” Zimmerlink said. “The settlement fails to address the issue of whether or not the ZHB properly applied the county’s zoning ordinance which was my stated reason for intervening and the reason Commissioner Zapotosky stated as well. By not having that issue addressed the commissioners continue to allow the ZHB’s interpretations and applications of the county’s zoning ordinance to be at question.”

Gary Verkleeren, senior business developer for PPM Atlantic Renewable/Iberdrola Renewables, said the company made concessions on turbine locations, resulting in the closest turbine being more than one half mile from any home. He said plans are still to construct 24 turbines.

Verkleeren said it is his understanding that the zoning board was looking out for the interests of residents when they issued the denial for the special exception, but said if the residents sign the agreement, there no longer should be a problem.

“We made concessions to these landowners to be a good neighbor,” Verkleeren said. “We moved things and dropped locations that hurt our profits.”

Verkleeren said the company has done everything the zoning board has wanted them to do. He said Gov. Ed Rendell supports wind energy, and the project is needed. Also, he said by providing money for Fayette County students to use for scholarships, money would be kept in the community.

“I live in Fayette County, the project was conceived to benefit Fayette County. We wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t for the greater good,” Verkleeren said.

Verkleeren said with two of the proposed turbines being taken off the drawing board, it triggers the relocation of the other turbines, which moves them away from the homes.

“There’s a science behind this,” Verkleeren said.

Verkleeren said he couldn’t understand why the zoning panel denied the special exception request, pointing out that wind turbines are permitted in the zoning ordinance, and the majority of those listed in the project did not require variances from setbacks.

Verkleeren, who serves on the Fayette County Planning Commission, said an equivalent denial would be if the planning commission denied a subdivision request although the property owner met all the 19 objective standards.

Commissioner Vincent A. Vicites said he has never been against the project but was concerned how it would impact the people on Skyline Drive in Wharton Township.

Vicites said with the stipulation agreement, it appears that the distance of the nearest windmill will go from 2,000 feet to 6,000 feet and the group of objectors seems to be satisfied.

“I wasn’t in favor of intervening but my main concern is that citizens are treated fairly,” Vicites said. “To PPM’s credit, they tried to work with them to satisfy their concerns.”

Vicites said he couldn’t comment on the inclusion of the scholarship amount in the agreement without hearing a legal opinion on it.

“The bottom line is I was not against this project and I give PPM credit for addressing their concerns. I think we need to move forward,” Vicites said.

The Wharton Township Zoning Hearing Board approved six turbines proposed for Wharton Township. Because Springhill and Georges townships do not have their own zoning, they fall under the county’s jurisdiction.

The settlement includes signature pages for officials and attorneys from the county, the county zoning hearing board, PPM Atlantic, Neil Brown and the estate of Sylvia Dunham. It states that the zoning hearing board would not be opposed to the denial being overturned.

When contacted, Jim Killinger, zoning board chairman, said he had not seen the agreement or read it.

“I will not sign it. I don’t see according to the zoning ordinance how it comes into play,” Killinger said.

Gretchen Mundorff, solicitor for the zoning board, could not be reached for comment.

Eric Williams, whose property is located near one of the proposed turbines, previously said he is not opposed to the project as a whole, but would like the company to consider moving one turbine away from several homes on Skyline Drive, including his own. Since that time, Williams has signed a separate settlement agreement that states plans for one of the turbines would be scrapped.

When Zapotosky and Zimmerlink directed Ferens to file a motion to intervene, 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.

Arguments on the case are slated for July 31 in Fayette County Court before Judge Ralph Warman, but if everyone signs the settlement, it will be presented to Warman prior to the arguments, Rullo said.

By Amy Zalar


17 July 2008