OAKLAND – The wind turbines rising over the Garrett County landscape in recent weeks also loom large over the race for the District 1 seat on the county commission.
Incumbent Republican Ernie Gregg, a 24-year veteran of the commission and its current chairman, is running for re-election. He will face first-time candidate Gregan Crawford in the Republican primary. Eric Robison, the Democratic candidate, is unopposed in the primary and will not face a challenger until the Nov. 2 general election.
Robison entered the public arena as a vocal opponent of the two wind development projects now under way on Backbone Mountain.
He has criticized the current commissioners, including Gregg, for what he said was their part in allowing wind development to proceed in the county without sufficient regulation or oversight.
Gregg said that there was “tacit support” from county government for the two wind projects, but argues that the commission has no legal right to single out and prevent the development of a particular project.
“There is no current legal establishment for the county to prohibit the establishment of wind turbines,” Gregg said. “We could not have prohibited the erection of those wind towers, because you can’t single shoot, and we have no zoning in Garrett County.”
Robison said the county commission provided more than tacit support for wind farm development, by leasing sanitary district land to a developer so that turbines could be built on the property. He referred to a lease extension dated December 2006 that was signed by Gregg on behalf of the Garrett County Sanitary District.
“Ernie is the only signature on the lease for Constellation at the sanitary district,” Robison said. “If he would not have signed the lease this project would not have gone on, because there would have been a sliver of land in the middle of the project that would not have been part of the project.”
Crawford has also spoken against the wind power facilities, saying the current commissioners should have supported a public discussion on the issue and on the impacts of wind facilities, so that county residents knew what to expect.
He said some people were blindsided by the project, and knew nothing about it until visible construction work began.
“You can do what you want with your property, but it’s hard for neighbors when they (construction crews) show up one day with no prior notice with dozers and excavators,” he said.
A carpenter and custom furniture builder for 20 years, Crawford said he believes the wind projects will hurt property values and have a negative impact on the construction industry if people decide not to build in the area.
“I think (the current commissioners) could have listened a little more to the concerns of a lot of people who had legitimate concerns about the bats and the birds,” Crawford added.
Gregg said the wind power facilities will provide an important economic benefit to the county, in the form of utility tax revenue that he estimated at $1.2 million for the first year the turbines are fully operable.
He and his fellow commissioners have also proposed a ballot referendum on the possibility of zoning, to let voters weigh in on that issue.
Gregg added that the current commissioners intend to wait to see the outcome of the two pending wind projects before supporting any new ones.
“There is nothing in our way of thinking to support anything in the future until we see how these two projects work out,” he said. “Even though they could go through with or without our support.”