Like a jet waiting to be cleared for takeoff, a proposed wind farm in Roanoke County is at a standstill while its developers seek approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.
At issue is whether a plan to build up to 18 power-generating turbines along the top of Poor Mountain would create a hazard to airplanes headed to and from Roanoke Regional Airport.
The process is taking longer than expected, as a national push for renewable energy has led to an increased number of wind farm developers seeking FAA clearance.
“The number of cases that have been submitted to us has risen exponentially over the past few years,” FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said. “We used to suggest there could be a fairly quick turnaround, but we’ve sort of been deluged by requests.”
Even if the FAA were to approve the project today, Chicago-based developer Invenergy would face more delays as it approaches a second regulatory hurdle – approval by the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors.
Although Invenergy has announced its intention to build the 443-foot-tall turbines on 2,000 acres it has leased on Poor Mountain, it has yet to make a formal proposal to the county.
Roanoke County has no zoning regulations that address what Invenergy has in mind, a utility-scale facility that would harness the winds that sweep across the ridgeline and convert them into enough electricity to power up to 10,000 homes.
After a year and a half of work, the county’s planning commission held a public hearing last week on proposed rules for such wind farms. But after listening to almost 60 speakers during the three-hour meeting, the panel decided it needed more time to look at the complex issues the turbines raise, particularly noise and the effects on the surrounding viewshed.
Pilots often routed over Poor Mountain
Before seeking a special-use permit from the county, Invenergy officials must wait for a FAA ruling that will either stop the project in its tracks or subject it to the next level of scrutiny.
Invenergy submitted its plan to the FAA in May. Based on past experience, the company expected the review process to take no longer than six months, said Don Giecek, business development manager for Invenergy.
“It seems like in this particular area they do have a backlog,” Giecek said.
The FAA’s website lists 206 projects awaiting approval in Virginia. Any structure more than 200 feet tall – wind turbines, buildings, communication towers, even construction cranes – must be reviewed by the FAA. Smaller structures within close range of airports are also studied.
Brown, the FAA spokeswoman, said it’s hard to say when a ruling will come on the Poor Mountain proposal.
“It really depends on the complexity of the project,” Brown said. Each of the 18 turbines proposed by Invenergy must be reviewed separately.
Last month, a local pilots organization sent a letter to the FAA, repeating its concerns about the dangers posed by turbines taller than the Wachovia Tower on the county’s highest mountain. The letter included a petition signed by 37 private and commercial pilots.
Roanoke’s airport has long been a nerve-racking place for pilots, who must maneuver the surrounding mountains and the tricky weather they can produce, said Matt Broughton, president of the Roanoke-based IFR Pilots Club.
When approaching the airport during bad weather, pilots are often routed over Poor Mountain. Airplanes are required to fly at least 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle, Broughton said, and the additional height of the turbines could expose them to more turbulence and worse weather.
“It’s already complicated enough to fly into Roanoke. We don’t want to make it more challenging,” Broughton said.
Planning commission struggles with issue
In the end, the FAA’s decision on the Invenergy proposal is largely irrelevant to Roanoke County’s deliberations on zoning regulations that will apply to any large- or utility-scale wind turbine development.
As the planning commission revisits those rules, a proposed ordinance is now at least two months, perhaps longer, from final consideration by the board of supervisors.
Should the FAA rule in the meantime, Invenergy would wait until the county completes its work before submitting an application, Giecek said.
The regulations the planning commission have been struggling with are being crafted for countywide application to any future project. The intent of the rules is to address “public safety, minimizing impacts on scenic, natural and historic resources of the county.”
At the same time, by state law, the regulations must meet that goal without “unreasonably interfering with the development of independent renewable energy sources.”
Last month, the board of supervisors approved regulations for small-scale wind turbines – those used by individual homeowners or businesses. Comments at the public hearing held before that vote were largely favorable to wind power.
A few speakers, however, raised some of the same health and aesthetic issues for those 100-foot and smaller systems that came up in discussions about the giant turbines.
For instance, many argued Tuesday that the 60-decibel noise limit proposed at the property line is inadequate and could interfere with sleep.
They also asserted that the regulations would still allow “very low frequency” vibrations from the big turbines that could affect the health and well-being of people living thousands of feet – even miles – away.
Although the magnitude and effects of those vibrations are hotly debated, Virginia Wise of Bent Mountain told the planning commission that her research showed “oscillating low-frequency noise produced sleep disturbances, headaches, unsteadiness, nausea and vomiting.
“It’s like a helicopter that never lands,” Wise said.
The most common objection came as speaker after speaker raised the specter of cluttered ridgelines despoiled by the whirling blades of turbines that would rise up to four times higher than nearby radio and television towers.
Many worry turbines would ruin views
As for the view of giant windmills spinning atop a ridgeline, perhaps the most visceral reaction at last week’s public hearing was from the perspective of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which offers sweeping vistas of Poor Mountain.
Some speakers said the turbines are an elegant and pleasing addition to any landscape.
Brian Lang, a 20-year county resident, said he has visited many wind turbine sites around the country.
“I like the way they look,” Lang said. “When I see lots of those, I think about clean renewable energy.”
The turbines are far more attractive than the innumerable cell towers that dot the county’s landscape, he said.
Lang’s perception of the turbines’ beauty, however, was a minority view. Far more speakers suggested the machines would ruin the views of mountains – a key attraction to both new residents and visitors.
Gary Johnson, a landscape architect who is chief of resource planning and professional services for the Blue Ridge Parkway, told the planners he was “representing the 17 million visitors who came last year to help celebrate the parkway’s 75th anniversary.”
Johnson said decades of research showed that the vast majority of those visitors, perhaps more than 90 percent, “come to the Blue Ridge Parkway for the views.”
“There is a relationship between visitation and … changes” in parkway views, he said. “Visitors stop coming to areas affected by changing views.”
The zoning proposal under consideration will require an applicant for a wind turbine farm to “provide written notification to the office of a national or state forest, national or state park, wildlife management area, or known historic or cultural resource site,” if the development would be within five miles of those places.
Johnson said the notification requirement was inadequate without also requiring consideration of input from the parkway staff.
He suggested that his office be included in the development of any simulated drawings or photos designed to show the effects of large turbines on views from the parkway.
Planning commission Vice Chairman David Radford said after the hearing, “There are so many dynamics we really need to weigh again, even though we have talked in work sessions a lot about those. But we need to take this information and absorb it some more.”
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding