TAZEWELL, Va. – By a split vote of 3-2, the Tazewell County Board of Supervisors knocked the wind out of a $200 million turbine project for East River Mountain Tuesday.
A large crowd that jammed the administration offices in downtown Tazewell erupted into applause after the so-called ridgeline protection ordinance was passed.
The motion to approve the tall structure ordinance was made by vice chairman David Anderson, seconded by Northern District Supervisor Jim Campbell Jr., and supported by Southern District board member Mike Hymes. Board chairman Seth White and Northwestern District board member John Absher voted against the ordinance, arguing in support of property owner rights and the tax revenue the project would generate.
“The people in my district have spoken very, very clearly,” Anderson said. “And it has been overwhelming. Ninety percent of the people in my district want to see a ridgeline ordinance. I can’t go against the will of my people.”
Anderson said the ordinance doesn’t prohibit wind energy. However, he said East River Mountain is not the place to build wind turbines.
“When this process started, I never thought I would see neighbor against neighbor,” Anderson said. “I love this place. I want to retire here. And I think it is time we put this thing to rest.”
The ordinance essentially prohibits the construction of structures more than 40 feet in height along certain protected ridgelines, including East River Mountain and Burkes Garden.
The deciding vote was cast by Hymes, who said the turbine project could provide a “substantial sum” of money that could help to offset a potential property tax increase. However, Hymes said too many questions remain unanswered regarding the impact of the turbines on nearby real estate and property values.
“After thorough review, I am convinced that the tall structures could do undue harm to our environment, our economy and our future economic possibilities without an assurance of best value, best use and best outcome,” Hymes said. “The proposed tall structure construction carries with them too much public controversy and too little public revenue for the potential consequence of their existence. Therefore, my vote is to support the Tazewell County tall structure ordinance.”
Hymes said he realized he was the deciding vote on the project.
“The newspaper people have hounded me to death,” Hymes said. “They say I’m the key vote on this thing. The key vote says I support the ridgeline ordinance.”
Campbell said voting against the ridgeline ordinance would be the equivalent of forcing nationalized health care upon citizens who don’t want it.
White said the majority of the citizens in the Northwestern District are opposed to the ordinance. White, who said he was a strong supporter of property owner rights, also stressed the wind turbines wouldn’t displace coal.
“I have a hard time telling property owners what to do with their land.” Absher added. “The ordinance has already passed, I know that, but I still have to say I would have voted no on the ordinance.”
Ryan Frazier, a spokesman for Dominion, said the company will now evaluate its options relative to the wind turbine project, and the 2,600 acres of land it currently owns on East River Mountain.
“We are evaluating our options,” Frazier said. “We are evaluating several options.”
“Obviously we are disappointed, but the voice of the citizens have spoken, and we respect the vote,” Emil Avram, director of business development for Dominion, said.
Frazier said the tall structure ordinance as written still allows for variances.
Frazier said there is no time frame for Dominion and BP to make a decision on the future of the project. Frazier said several other potential sites in Virginia remain under evaluation for wind turbines, including the recently approved Wise County project.
Several citizens spoke before the board Tuesday, and appealed for the passage of the ridgeline ordinance.
Bary Wiley, III, a member of the Mercer County Airport Authority board, said the airport authority supported the ridgeline ordinance due to safety concerns the turbines could create for approaching aircraft.
“Our airport also is an economic tool for Tazewell County,” Wiley said. “We are typically an alternative in terms of severe weather. We tend to be the airport they divert to. As a member of the airport board I do – and we as a whole – support the ridgeline ordinance.”
Bluefield, Va., Mayor Don Harris said town officials adopted their own tall structure ordinance last year to protect the citizens of Bluefield, Va.
“Gentleman, I am respectfully requesting that you follow suit with my fellow council members of Bluefield, Va., and listen to what the overwhelming majority have to say,” Harris said. “And I think the overwhelming majority here tonight are in favor of adopting the ridgeline ordinance.”
Amy Flick of Pocahontas urged the board to “bite the bullet,” and “vote right” by passing the tall structure ordinance.
Zane Dale Christian of Bluefield, Va., said the county would lose $344 million in tourism and property value revenue if the turbines are erected, and gain only $10 million in new tax revenue.
The wind turbine debate has dragged on for nearly 14 months. Local officials first confirmed in November 2008 that Dominion and BP had purchased more than 2,600 acres of land on East River Mountain for the purpose of building as many as 60, 400 foot tall wind turbines along the ridgeline of East River Mountain.
Although a number of studies were underway by Dominion and BP on East River Mountain, Frazier said following Tuesday’s vote that he didn’t know if the studies would continue, once again saying the company was evaluating all of its options.
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