In a split vote on Thursday, the Fayette County commissioners changed the county’s zoning ordinance to increase the allowable noise level emitted by wind turbines when measured at neighboring property lines.
The motion, approved by Chairman Vincent Zapotosky and Commissioner Vincent A. Vicites, now allows the sound level at neighboring property lines to be 70 decibels using the “dBA” scale, and drops the “dBC” scale of sound measurement from the ordinance. Commissioner Angela M. Zimmerlink voted against the action, saying she agreed with measuring the sound at the property line and not at an occupied structure, as had been proposed by a wind turbine developer, but not raising it to 70 decibels.
Zimmerlink pointed out that the 55-decibel level has been used as a model for industry and as the industry standard, as well as in other municipal ordinances.
The commissioners heard from supporters and detractors for an hour at the beginning of the meeting.
The ordinance previously read that the allowable sound level from the neighboring property line is 55 “dBA and dBC.”
Earlier this year, Iberdrola Renewables of Portland, Ore., a company that has been planning to construct a 23-tower wind project in Georges, Springhill and Wharton townships for years, was seeking for the ordinance to only include a measurement of 55 “dBA” decibels from an occupied structure, and exclude any reference to a “dBC” decibel level. The “A” scale is more widely used than the “C” scale for measuring sound.
However, Zapotosky then proposed that the decibel level be raised to 70, and that the measurement be taken from the property line and not at an occupied structure. He also agreed that the “C” scale should be dropped to keep the ordinance uniform because the rest of the sound measurements in it use the “A” scale.
Thomas Bozek of Springhill Township, whose property is located near the site of the proposed South Chestnut Ridge project, opposed the change, saying prior testimony by Iberdrola officials claimed the 55-decibel level could be met. Bozek, who previously hired a sound expert to demonstrate how loud 70 decibels is, stands to have a wind turbine a little more than a mile (5,500 feet) from his home.
Bozek urged Vicites and Zimmerlink to allow his expert to demonstrate how loud wind turbines are at 70 decibels because the two commissioners last month missed a public hearing on the proposed zoning change, but that offer was declined.
Bozek and Zapotosky debated a demonstration in which the 70-decibel sound level of the tape-recorded wind turbines dropped to 50 decibels when the sound meter went into the election bureau office next door and the door was closed.
After Zapotosky said he was ready to move forward, solicitor Joseph E. Ferens Jr. advised Bozek that if he doesn’t like the decision made by the commissioners, his attorney could advise him on the next course of action he should take.
Bozek’s attorney, Gary Altman, said the change is a huge expansion of the ordinance to permit a couple projects.
Altman, a Republican, then told Zapotosky and Vicites, who are Democrats, that he thinks they are committing political suicide.
“I think you’re going way farther than you have to go to accommodate these people,” Altman said.
Bozek said the commissioners would understand when the project gets installed just how loud 70 decibels is.
He said he feels he is being forced to participate in the project, asking if the reason is to set a precedent for the industry, or even for the natural gas industry.
Zapotosky and Vicites each separately denied that their decision on the sound level for the wind turbines had anything to do with the Marcellus shale natural gas industry.
John Cofchin called the change “last-minute” and “arbitrary,” and asked Zapotosky and Vicites why more noise is better than less noise.
Zapotosky said he suggested changing the allowable level to 70 decibels at the property line because that sound level, which was previously in the ordinance, was mentioned in a court decision by Judge Steve P. Leskinen.
Bozek said he was aware that he is fighting a losing battle, adding that he has been criticized for fighting the project for financial gain.
“I have spent an exorbitant amount of money to fight this. I think you need to look at the health, safety and welfare of the county residents,” Bozek said.
Vicites said wind projects have a lot of positive aspects.
“We need to move forward on this project,” Vicites said.
Richard Bower, the attorney who represented Iberdrola, said it is worth noting that Zapotosky and not the wind company asked for the higher decibel level. He also disputed comments by Bozek that Bozek wasn’t against the project, pointing out that last year Bozek attempted to testify as a sound expert at a hearing in Wharton Township for turbines that are miles from his home.
Todd Castile, an electrical contractor who stands to get work from the project, said the commissioners need to make a responsible decision.
“You have to look beyond one particular individual who is more than a mile away,” Castile said.
Other property owners who are participants in the project spoke out in favor of the $100 million proposal.
Bozek said it is pretty obvious that if you are making money, you are in favor of the project. He said he isn’t making any money from the project, adding that the blades are 262 feet in the air and the sound travels.
“When it’s there, it’s pretty loud,” Bozek said. “Studies show you can hear them two to three miles away.”
Zapotosky said if changing the ordinance doesn’t work, it can be corrected.
After the vote, Neil Brown, who is a participating property owner whose lumber company will be used during construction of the project and Gary Verkleeren of Iberdrola thanked Zapotosky and Vicites for their vote, along with Valerie Thompson, an Iberdrola employee and Fayette County resident.
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