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Proposal could affect wind decisions

RICHMOND – A bill related to commercial wind energy hit the General Assembly session last week, and opposition to it is mounting fast.

It does not appear the proposal would affect Highland New Wind Development’s plans to build a wind plant here, but it could mean county supervisors would be forced to create an ordinance to address wind energy plants – something they’ve long avoided.

Sen. Frank Wagner (R-Virginia Beach) introduced Senate Bill 862, “Commonwealth Energy Policy,” regarding local renewable energy facility siting ordinances, on Jan. 10.

The measure would require every locality to adopt an ordinance that “provides criteria to be addressed in the siting of renewable energy projects.”

The ordinances would have to be “consistent with the goals of the commonwealth” to promote using renewable energy sources, including electricity generated by wind turbines. Local ordinances would have to include provisions for “reasonable requirements” that limit noise, require setbacks, protect viewsheds, limit shadow flicker, and address decommissioning. “Any construction practices or environmental protection measures required by a renewable energy siting ordinance shall be consistent with the locality’s existing ordinances,” the bill states.

“That doesn’t surprise me at all,” said Highland supervisor Robin Sullenberger Tuesday. “There’s been a clear message from Richmond about these kinds of projects … Wagner has been clearly a strong advocate, pushing buttons on this issue.”

Sullenberger said the Virginia Association of Counties is likely to weigh in on the proposal. “I suspect they will be closely monitoring this. They always do when it comes to issues of local control. They’re always reluctant to weigh in philosophically on specific issues, but they don’t relent on matters related to loss of local control,” Sullenberger said. “My first inclination is to see how it unfolds, and how it affects Highland’s project, if it does at all.”

As Sullenberger predicted, VACo is indeed monitoring the bill, and opposes it.

Larry Land, VACo’s director of policy development, said the association has already contacted Wagner’s office. “It’s a good idea,” he said about the Virginia Energy Plan in general. “The state is moving in the direction of using renewable sources of power… but we don’t think this bill represents the best approach.”

VACo represents county governments throughout Virginia, and one of its main tenets is the protection of local authority, Land explained.

Land said VACo is currently developing a model wind energy ordinance for its county members as a reference. “We’re going to be working with the Department of Environmental Quality and representatives from the industry,” he explained. “We anticipate the development of ordinances for other renewables, too.”

Wagner’s bill has been referred to the Senate committee on commerce and labor. Bath County’s Sen. Creigh Deeds, who serves on that committee, said he has not looked at it closely yet but wondered why the mandate would be necessary. He mentioned ridgeline protection ordinances proposed or existing in other counties, saying the bill might override those or strip localities from their authority to design and implement their own land use regulations. “I try to listen to both sides, but that’s the way it seems to me … generally, I’m always on the side of localities. Local governments should make those decisions,” he said.

Tazewell County supervisors passed an ordinance last year prohibiting tall structures on certain ridgelines in response to a Dominion Power proposal for an industrial wind energy project along East River Mountain. Sen. Phillip Puckett (D-Russell County), who also serves on the commerce and labor committee, and has said he opposes Wagner’s legislation.

In Wise County, where another industrial wind plant is proposed, officials have initially welcomed a project to erect towers on mountain ridges already mined for coal.

VACo points out the difference. “This is a very diverse state,” Land said. “It sounds cliché but it’s true: one size does not fit all. We recognize that issues are important to residents where they live, and there is lots of diversity. What some localities are receptive to, others aren’t. Some place a high premium on scenic resources because those attract tourists, and add to the quality of life. That has to be respected.”

VACo representatives have contacted Wagner’s staff about the bill. “The committee meets on Monday, and it could be carried over,” Land said. “We communicate our positions, but we start by trying to work in good faith with the members of the General Assembly.”

This is not the first time opposition has arisen to Wagner’s proposed bills on wind energy.

After Wagner successfully passed legislation that created the Virginia Energy Plan, he introduced bills the last four years to support it, many of them focused on wind energy development specifically.

In 2006, he proposed a one-stop permitting process for wind projects. The bill, as initially prposed, included a sentence stating facilities approved under the new plan would be deemed to satisfy local ordinances, thereby overriding local authority.

The bill enacted resulted in a new permitting process, dubbed “permit by rule,” for smaller wind utilities. The process falls under the Department of Environmental Quality instead of the State Corporation Commission.

Last year, Wagner introduced legislation that included a measure allowing wind facilities to avoid taxes, exempting them from state and local taxes up to 80 percent of their value for plants under 100 MW. Highland County supervisors strongly opposed that bill, sending the message to Sen. Emmett Hanger and Del. Chris Saxman at the time; that exemption proposal was deleted from the bill.

Wagner’s current proposal could be heard in committee on Monday. Those opposed say the measure would “usurp” local government control over industrial wind turbine regulation.” They urge citizens to contact the members of commerce and labor and ask them to kill the bill.