When Gary Johnson became the chief planner for the Blue Ridge Parkway in 1994, Roanoke County was still licking its wounds from battles lost to developers who wanted to build subdivisions just off the National Park Service’s most-visited attraction.
These days, he’s focused on protecting the mountain views from giant wind turbines. And now, as then, that means trying to mitigate the impact of development, not stop it, along the Old Dominion portion of the 470-mile parkway that runs through western North Carolina and Virginia.
In North Carolina, Johnson tells me, western legislators have imposed sort of an informal moratorium on wind farms. “The state was working on legislation related to permitting, and they essentially said that, as far as they’re concerned, there will never be any commercial wind turbine developments in the western counties. So it kind of stalled in the legislature.”
I can’t imagine such a scenario in Virginia, which holds private property development rights so sacred they easily trump a trifling like mountaintop protection.
Which makes the commonwealth hospitable territory for Chicago-based Invenergy, which wants to put as many as 18 440-foot-tall windmills atop Roanoke County’s Poor Mountain to generate clean energy.
I love wind, but its environmental virtue is dimmed somewhat by the prospect of utility-sized turbines in the midst of a population center and within sight of some of the nation’s most popular natural attractions.
To say the project would have an impact on parkway visitors is an understatement of suitably towering proportion. Understandably, the parkway would like to have some influence on turbine placement and design should the plan become a reality.
“There are no turbines on the parkway now,” Johnson said in a phone interview last week.
In fact, the only turbine he could recall seeing even in the vicinity of parkway headquarters (and his home base) in Asheville, N.C., was a small, residential-type windmill in Boone, “and you can’t see it from the parkway.
“There are no large turbine developments like Invenergy is proposing, so this would be the first.”
That came as a revelation to Roanoke County’s planning commission earlier this month when it held a public hearing on a set of zoning rules for utility-scale wind turbines. Johnson was there, pushing for a meaningful role for the parkway in any process the county adopts.
Commission members seemed amenable. They mentioned the parkway as one concern when they decided to delay sending the proposed ordinance to the county’s board of supervisors.
If the planning commission wants to rework it to ensure that not just the parkway, but the Appalachian Trail and other public lands get due consideration, Johnson and Invenergy offer a working model of cooperation.
“Invenergy has been really good about getting in touch with the parkway, listening to what we have to say,” Johnson said last week.
He has driven the section in Roanoke County with the company’s business development manager, Don Giecek, and landscape architect David Hill, “looking from overlooks and various vistas” to pick places where the company will do computer simulations to show how visible turbines would be.
They narrowed the locations to about 10.
The simulations would help with parkway management, Johnson explained, by showing the park service how it might change how it cuts the vegetation that it constantly has to clear from roadside vistas and overlooks.
“We might be able to modify how we cut so we can redirect the view, maybe. That could be something that would help us mitigate the impact. We’re reserving judgment of what the impact will be till the visual simulations are completed.”
That opportunity has been the result of Invenergy’s willingness to reach out even before it has submitted an application for a special-use permit. The park service shouldn’t have to hope for a company’s good will, though, if other wind-energy projects come along.
The park service wants companies to be required to consult with its staff before submitting an application. As the county’s proposed regulations now read, companies would not have to notify the parkway and other affected natural or cultural resources until the application was filed. That would leave no opportunity to influence simulations, which also have to be submitted with the application.
Without input from these parties, how would county staff know what to require?
Some people find the turbines beautiful. Some tourists would come to the Roanoke Valley just to see them, I expect, and some seeking natural views wouldn’t really be put off.
But parkway Superintendent Phil Francis has this caution the year after the linear park celebrated its 75th anniversary: Communities along the parkway have to consider the cumulative impact of development as more and more occurs.
He has driven through a wind farm, and seen the wonder of it himself. “I worked in Yosemite,” he said in a phone conversation last week, “and would drive to our regional office in the San Francisco Bay area. Probably 1991, the last time I drove, there was a whole mountainside covered by wind turbines. It was a novelty and I wanted to see those.
“But after a while, the interest wears off.”
Nature is an ever-changing revelation.
Strother is a member of The Roanoke Times editorial board.