It’s not the first time. It won’t be the last.
Virginia Beach Sen. Frank Wagner has been on a roll for years when it comes to pursuing the interests of the wind industry. Following his successful push for the Virginia Energy Plan, Wagner has proposed bill after bill in the General Assembly to smooth the way for renewable energy, especially commercial wind towers.
We applaud his passion for the topic, but he misses the mark on the right proposals to garner favor for renewable resources.
Wagner’s bills, as introduced, often contain accommodating measures that offer support for wind companies – at the expense of taxpayers and local governments.
For example, one of his bills last year proposed to give heavy tax exemptions to wind developers that would leave our county, or any locality, little to show for allowing such utilities to exist within their borders. Highland County, up to its ears in this issue anyway, was adamant that if Highland New Wind Development was provided an opportunity to build its project here, the county should benefit in tax revenue. Local leaders lobbied the state to enact a law to provide protection for that income years before the Virginia Energy Plan was enacted. Wagner’s proposal would have stripped it away. Supervisors were on the ball, made their opposition clear, and that tax break was subsequently removed from his Senate bill.
Wagner succeeded in creating an entirely different permit process for so-called “small” wind plants – those generating 100 megawatts or less.
This time, Senate Bill 862 proposes that localities be required to pass ordinances to address wind energy development “consistent with” his Virginia Energy Plan.
Vague? Yes. But make no mistake: It’s a mandate.
Highland County officials have for years avoided creating ordinances or zoning laws addressing wind power. They have refused to add anything to our building ordinance, zoning map, or comprehensive plan draft, with the exception of acknowledging wind as a natural resource.
Wagner’s bill would force them into passing local laws based on state policy that Wagner himself crafted on behalf of the wind industry. Generally speaking, any time the state proposes stripping land use authority from local governments there is opposition – legally and politically. As a commonwealth, Virginia’s conservative platforms have been geared toward giving localities the role of maintaining their land use authority. That is supported in multiple ways in the state code, and is nearly always supported by the courts when it’s challenged.
Highland knows this better than most. Every time the county has been called to the carpet for its land use decisions, it has prevailed; the courts give a lot of weight to local decisionmaking.
What’s worrisome is how bills are drafted. Just one sentence cleverly worded can slip through the watchful eyes of lobbyists and lawmakers. This is a short session, too, and the number of bills our elected leaders see is too much to absorb.
It’s a good thing, then, that groups like the Virginia Association of Counties, or environmental watchdogs, put a great deal of time into keeping an eye on such proposals. What’s even more encouraging is how many regular citizens do this, too, and are willing to contact their legislators when they see something they don’t like.
But Wagner is good at this. Just because his bills gather opposition doesn’t mean they don’t pass. Highland County cannot sit back and assume this one won’t get out of committee. Complacency is a true enemy of good public policy. Highland citizens elected our officials to look out for their interests. Wagner will continue to propose the state take over local policymaking on this issue, and unless our county officials take a stand, he will eventually prevail and our county officials will no longer have a choice about how they guide this, or some other kind of development that politicians from elsewhere happen to support. If we want to continue to make our own decisions about where we live, Highland’s board should not only write to our representatives opposing this bill, but also think again about creating an ordinance to address wind development, before the state requires them to do it the state’s way.
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