TAZEWELL, Va. – The scenic ridgelines of Tazewell County will still be protected – at least for now.
The Senate’s Commerce and Labor Committee agreed Monday to amend a controversial energy bill sought Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach. The bill as originally written by Wagner threatened to override Tazewell County’s existing ridgeline protection ordinance. The committee members instead adopted a substitute bill that would not override existing county ordinances.
The amended legislation instead sets forward future guidelines for wind and solar projects that localities are to meet that are consistent with the state’s renewable energy policies, but doesn’t override existing ordinances.
“It specifically says in this that it doesn’t effect or undo the Bluefield ordinance,” Sen. Phillip Puckett, D-Russell, a member of the Commerce and Labor Committee, said. “It’s only future ordinances you do. This gives you some guidelines.”
Despite the amendments, Puckett said he voted against the bill.
“I personally did not vote for it because I didn’t want to be on record as supporting something that later down the road could create a problem for Tazewell County and their ordinance,” Puckett said.
Given Monday’s vote, Puckett said he didn’t see how Dominion could proceed with the construction of a wind turbine farm on East River Mountain short of a court challenge, or the local board reversing its decision to adopt a ridgeline protection ordinance.
Delegate James W. “Will” Morefield, R-Tazewell, said he too remains opposed to the amended bill, and will challenge it in the House.
“I do not support the bill even with the amendments,” Morefield said. “And I do not support the original bill. I will be testifying against it in the House.”
Morefield said he too doesn’t see a way the wind turbine farm can be constructed on East River Mountain with the defeat of Wagner’s original legislation.
“Whether the current bill is signed into law or not, if Dominion pursues the wind turbine project under the current Tazewell County ordinance, they would be violating the law,” Morefield said. “And obviously I don’t support Dominion violating the law. I just want the residents of Bluefield to be very clear that I am one of the largest advocates for the coal and natural gas industries. I do support all forms of energy, including coal and wind. But I do not support any legislation that would override a county ordinance. I want the citizens to be clear that I do not support wind turbines on East River Mountain.”
David Anderson, chairman of the Tazewell County Board of Supervisors, said the county’s existing ridgeline ordinance now stands.
“My number one objective going up there was of course to protect Tazewell County,” Anderson said. He was joined at Monday’s committee meeting by Bluefield, Va., Mayor Don Harris, Bluefield, Va., Town Manager Todd Day, and several members of the Mountain Preservation Association, a citizens group opposed to the development of wind turbines on East River Mountain.
“The most important part of it is the last sentence,” Anderson said of the amended bill. “It protects us.”
Anderson said Puckett and Morefield are to be commended for their efforts to protect Tazewell County’s existing ridgeline protection ordinance.
In an earlier interview, Larry Land, director of policy development for VACO, said Wagner’s bill as originally written would have weakened local government land use authority and could have trumped local ordinances such as Tazewell County’s recently adopted ridgeline protection ordinance.
“There is a philosophical problem we have with the General Assembly telling local governments what ordinances they shall adopt,” Land said in the earlier interview. “It’s very rarely done. But it may be done in certain situations where there is a really, really pressing imperative. But in this case it is just something we are really concerned about.”
Tazewell County’s ridgeline protection ordinance was adopted by the county Board of Supervisors last February. It basically prohibits the construction of tall structures on certain protected ridgelines, including East River Mountain. Dominion is still proposing the construction of a large-scale wind turbine farm along the ridgelines of East River Mountain.
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