Putting giant wind turbines on top of Poor Mountain will pose no danger to airplanes passing overhead, the Federal Aviation Administration ruled Wednesday.
The long-awaited decision was the first in a series of regulatory steps that must be taken before a Chicago-based company can build up to 18 power-generating windmills on the ridgeline.
At 443 feet tall, the turbines would stand taller than the Wachovia Tower atop the highest mountain in Roanoke County.
The FAA found that 14 of the 18 turbines proposed by Invenergy do “not exceed obstruction standards and would not be a hazard to air navigation,” according to notices posted on its website.
The regulator presumed four other proposed turbines to be a hazard because their highest point is more than 4,200 feet above sea level – the “minimum vectoring altitude” for aircraft approaching the Roanoke Regional Airport, FAA spokesman Jim Peters said.
Invenergy could relocate the turbines or shorten them to bring them into compliance, Peters said. All of the turbines would have to be marked with white paint and have flashing red lights to make them more visible to pilots, the FAA said.
A local aviation club contends the wind farm would hamper aircraft approaching Roanoke. Last month, the group submitted a petition to the FAA signed by 37 private and commercial pilots.
Pilots could be forced to fly higher or around the turbines in certain situations, leading to some uncomfortable moments – at the least – for passengers, said Matt Broughton, president of the IFR Pilots Club.
“Just because the FAA says that it is not, quote, technically a hazard, that does not mean it’s not unsafe,” Broughton said.
Officials at the Roanoke Regional Airport have also weighed in, informing the FAA last summer that they had worries about the four highest proposed turbines.
“We are pleased that the FAA did recognize our concerns,” airport spokeswoman Sherry Wallace said. “That’s not to say there couldn’t still be some problems,” she added, particularly for small planes that operate on visual flight rules.
Invenergy will have 60 days to review the FAA finding and come up with a solution.
“If a concern for a particular turbine cannot be addressed, it will either be relocated or eliminated,” the company said in a statement. “Our goal has been, and will continue to be, to work with the community on the best way to move forward.”
Apart from the air traffic issue, sentiment about the proposed wind farm has fallen into two basic camps: supporters who cite the need for renewable energy to reduce the nation’s dependence on coal, and opponents – many of whom live on the mountain – who fear the turbines will produce noise, flickering shadows and an eyesore to scenic surroundings.
The debate has been waged through letters to the editor in The Roanoke Times, on blogs, in community meetings and at public hearings held since the company announced its intentions a year ago.
Once the FAA process is completed, Invenergy will face Roanoke County’s regulatory hurdles. Exactly what those will be isn’t yet clear.
After a year and a half of study, the county has yet to approve zoning regulations specifically addressing large wind turbines.
Proposed rules, developed after numerous work sessions by the planning commission, were sent back to the drawing board earlier this month after a public hearing attracted about 60 sharply divided speakers.
The commission asked staff to reconsider questions raised about such issues as noise types and levels, regulating the effects of flickering shadows from the turbine blades, and mitigation of the impact on views of the mountain.
Meanwhile, about a half-dozen environmental and community groups are backing the wind farm. In an endorsement last year, Roanoke’s Sierra Club chapter said the project will reduce carbon emissions by 98,000 tons a year, while producing enough clean electricity to power up to 10,000 homes.
The planning commission is expected to consider revised recommendations at its April 19 meeting, according to Philip Thompson, deputy director of planning for the county.
Even if the new rules move uninterrupted through the approval process, it will likely be June at the earliest before the supervisors can approve, amend or reject them.
In its statement Wednesday, Invenergy said it will wait until that process is completed before moving forward.
Once the company files an application detailing its plans, the supervisors would then have to consider a special-use permit. If the wind farm receives county approval, it would still need an OK from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.