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Once burned, twice shy next door

Pendleton County residents learned their lessons about the wind industry the hard way five years ago. Upon hearing recently another industrial project was planned for one of the county ridges, they were prepared.

Solaya Energy LLC, and the private landowners who hope the company will erect wind towers on their property, requested Pendleton County Commissioners coordinate a meeting Tuesday so they could share information about their project, and ask the county create an ordinance governing wind energy facilities in Pendleton.

Roughly 100 gathered in Franklin, W.Va., and at the meeting, questions and statements from Pendleton citizens indicate they are much savvier about this industry than they were in 2006-07, when a different company, U.S. Wind Force, attempted to install its Liberty Gap project.

Back then, what people knew about wind utilities didn’t amount to much, and data was confusing at best. U.S. Wind Force ran roughshod over Pendleton people and officials in an attempt to market Liberty Gap on Jack Mountain as a cash cow for them all. At one point, Pendleton officials even agreed U.S. Wind Force could use the powers of eminent domain if it needed some land that owners wouldn’t sell.

It didn’t take long for residents to join forces, and educate themselves. They organized in opposition, learned from other localities’ experiences, including Highland County’s, and proceeded to fight that project on every front, even in the legal system. They succeeded, mostly. The West Virginia Public Service Commission twice rejected the company’s plans, and so far, U.S. Wind Force has yet not applied for a state permit for the facility again.

So, when residents learned a different company was coming to town, they knew exactly what the debate and process would entail.

Solaya, for its part, was far more open with citizens in three hours this week than U.S. Wind Force was over the course of years. Its manager, Bill Rogers, did not appear to deliberately duck any questions he could answer. He did a bang-up job of holding steady during a barrage of comments and questions from folks who obviously weren’t there to welcome his company’s proposal.

Citizens came armed with more than an hour’s worth of intelligent questions about the negative aspects associated with commercial wind. They’d heard it all before, and they were keenly aware the industry has far more downsides than “green” benefits.

There was a difference, too, in Pendleton’s commission. When U.S. Wind Force came knocking, a different set of commissioners appeared to plow everything under the table and behind closed doors, giving little if any weight to constituents, and doing little in-depth research on their own.

This week, we saw a commission readily listen to those who elected them – and it was a refreshing change, as most acknowledged. Asked by Cow Knob landowners and Solaya to consider a wind energy ordinance, commissioners agreed – but they intend to proceed with a carefully balanced committee to explore options for one that reflects citizens’ desires. Asked to determine what the majority of its residents want, commissioners agreed again, saying they were seeking the best methods to canvass the county for opinions, including those of absentee landowners, if possible. Furthermore, they said, they would support whatever that majority opinion turned out to be.

Those actions and the commissioners’ attitudes stood in stark contrast to the way Highland County supervisors handled the process involving Highland New Wind Development LLC’s plans for a similar project here. Highland officials refused to find a legitimate way to determine the opinion of most of our citizens, steadfastly ignored pleas to create a wind ordinance, and brushed off a deeper discussion of wind power in its comprehensive plan review.

The Cow Knob landowners were far different from HNWD owners, too. HNWD’s McBride family has appeared callous and indifferent to Highland residents’ concerns. That was not true of the Cow Knob landowners who spoke Tuesday. They were sincere in explaining their efforts to hold onto family land. They hope a wind plant will generate enough revenue to keep their holdings intact. They listened to fellow citizens for hours, and when it was over, thanked them for their input and assured them they were heard. They also appeared sincere in wanting to maintain the integrity of the property, and follow whatever regulations Pendleton installs for the project.

Despite the landowners’ efforts, and straightforward talk from Solaya, Pendleton residents were having none of it. And with good reason.

What they know from their own research tells them that, no matter how good a corporate partner Solaya may be, and no matter how diligent the landowners are, an industrial project involving this many 400-foot towers does not belong on the Allegheny Front. Pendleton residents understand sacrificing their area’s distinguished beauty and pristine environment to make way for such a facility simply isn’t worth the money, or the area’s degradation. Not to mention the hurdles involving permits from two states, which could run this project into years of development and cost millions in getting to that point alone.

That Pendleton has learned its lesson so well speaks volumes for the long, time-consuming efforts on the grassroots level. Those who have spent years studying this industry and communicating that information to their friends and neighbors, should be applauded for their work.

It’s too soon to tell how this project might evolve, but there’s no doubt Pendleton is no longer as vulnerable to the corporate push on wind power as it used to be. An informed citizenry makes all the difference.

There’s not a full-time farmer in these mountains who wouldn’t understand and sympathize with the Cow Knob families’ desire to hang on to their land. In fact, we believe most Pendleton and Rockingham residents would want that, too, because those landowners are, in fact, preserving and protecting a valuable part of the area’s landscape, and have done so for generations.

But as much as we get their motives, we also know they’re setting themselves up for a costly, protracted battle – one they are not likely to win. Pendleton citizens, clearly, will fight it with everything they’ve got, and they have a proven track record of success.

We hope those same citizens opposing the project will help their Cow Knob neighbors find a more suitable, longterm solution to help them keep the land they love while simultaneously protecting the rest of the county.

That would be a far better outcome – one all residents and landowners could live with.