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Wind energy vote put on hold

LAS VEGAS, N.M. – Scientists and residents of San Miguel County dueled for hours Tuesday night over an ordinance to govern development of wind energy facilities, with the San Miguel County Commission ultimately postponing any action until next week.

Worn-out commissioners recessed after spending more than 12 hours together and made plans to reconvene at 1:30 p.m. Monday in their usual meeting room.

At 9:40 p.m. Tuesday, Commissioner Nicolas Leger noted that they had been meeting since 9 a.m. “I’m fried. I can’t think straight, and I’m having difficulty reading my own notes,” he said.

The meeting drew well over 100 people, enough to delay proceedings while the venue was switched from the commission chambers at the courthouse to the much-larger Ilfield Auditorium on the New Mexico Highlands campus.

Most divisive was the question of how far any wind turbine must be from the closest residence. In a draft of the ordinance prepared by a task force, turbines must be three miles from any residence. The Chicago-based company, Invenergy, which wants to put a wind farm atop Bernal Mesa, sent representatives Tuesday to lobby for the distance to be reduced to 1,500 feet.

A parade of opponents (many wearing T-shirts that read: “Love This Land! Love This Life!”) and proponents (many wearing green stickers that read “Support Wind, Support Jobs”) of changing the ordinance took turns voicing their views during public comments.

“The amount of money brought into our community through this project would be phenomenal,” said Oren Matthews, who said his family came to Las Vegas in the 1880s. “It would bring our economy back.”

Rico Giron, on the other side of the debate, told the crowd Invenergy wants to “ransack and pillage a natural resource and send it somewhere else.”

Some residents of the area around Bernal Mesa said they don’t want their views affected, but the most hotly contested potential problem with turbines concerned health impacts of the sound from the whirling blades.

Eileen Mulvihill, who was on the ordinance task force and owns a farm outside Villanueva, said that as a Ph.D. she studied disease for years. She said the state of Maine’s Health Department called for a moratorium on wind turbine developments there because of demonstrated health problems, including insomnia and headaches.

But Mark Roberts, a Ph.D. author of a study evaluating scientific assessments of the health effects of turbines, told the commission by phone, “There’s no scientific evidence there’s health defects or disease associated with wind turbines.”

The county has an ordinance regarding wind energy developments from 2003, but any construction was put on hold while a task force worked on an updated version.

Mark Jacobson, a business development director for Invenergy, has said in the past that the company has built more than 20 developments, and most of the counties containing them had setbacks ranging from 750 to 2,000 feet from residences.

In 2008, Invenergy signed a two-year lease option with the State Land Office for 7,063 acres of state trust land atop the mesa. Jacobson has said Invenergy was looking at up to 50 wind turbines on the site, each producing up to 1.5 megawatts of electricity, about the amount needed to power 400 homes in a year.

From an upright blade to the ground, the machines would be 390 feet high.