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Wind farm officially open; Demonstrators protest at Garrett County ribbon-cutting ceremony

OAKLAND – A ceremonial ribbon-cutting for Maryland’s first commercial wind farm was punctuated by protesters, who stood holding signs outside the entrance of the $140 million facility.

About 50 community members and government officials celebrated the project’s completion with speeches and a catered meal Tuesday morning atop Backbone Mountain, where the massive blades of some of the farm’s 28 wind turbines rotated slowly in a steady breeze.

Constructed by Constellation Energy, the facility is expected to produce enough renewable energy to meet the electricity needs of 23,000 households in Maryland, Delaware and Virginia, said Dale Linaweaver, a managing director. Commercial operations at the wind farm actually began in December.

“I don’t think there’s an energy source that everyone likes,” said Linaweaver, who, like other participants in Tuesday’s ceremony, had to drive past protesters to get to the event. “Even our solar projects, some people are fighting right now. But (wind) is certainly an important part of the energy mix.”

About a dozen citizens stood along Eagle Rock Road holding signs criticizing the wind project on a variety of points. “Wind Turbines Kill Bats,” one sign said. “Tax Money – In the Wind,” said another.

“These projects would not exist without our money,” said Jeff Conner, who lives on a farm about 20 miles away. He said that the turbines compromise his “million-dollar view.”

“They’re not self-sustaining,” Conner said of industrial wind projects. “They’re using my tax dollars for this.”

Members of Save Western Maryland, which filed a lawsuit against Constellation Energy last year over alleged violations of the Endangered Species Act, indicated Tuesday that they have agreed to delay a trial until 2012 to allow the company time to obtain necessary permits. The group claims that wind turbines pose a threat to the endangered Indiana bat.

“Although we continue to hope that Constellation will fulfill its duties in good faith, the history of the Backbone wind plant does little to inspire confidence,” Save Western Maryland said in a press release.

Construction at the wind farm site was temporarily halted in March when the Maryland Department of the Environment found violations related to inadequate or improperly installed erosion and sediment controls.

Constellation addressed the violations and revised its site plans and was allowed to proceed with construction shortly thereafter.

During Tuesday’s ribbon-cutting event, officials pointed to some of the wind farm’s positive impacts on the local community. At the peak of construction last year, about 200 people were employed, with more than half classified as local hires, according to the company. The plant now has nine permanent employees, including manager Don Shilobod, who has bought a home in Oakland.

“Constellation’s been a good community partner, a good corporate citizen, since they’ve been here,” said Garrett County Chamber of Commerce President Nicole Christian, who attended the ribbon-cutting. The company was a sponsor of the annual Oakland Winterfest, the Fourth of July fireworks, and Deep Creek Lake Art & Wine festival, Linaweaver said.

“We hope that they’ll continue to be a good corporate citizen,” Christian said.

“It’s a little bit noisy, but we’ve gotten used to it,” said Martha White, who lives on Bethlehem Road and has four wind turbines on her property. “We’re both on disability, and we were having trouble paying our bills, so this has been a good thing for us.”

But another area resident, Eric Robison, said Constellation Energy hasn’t been a good neighbor. Robison, a member of Save Western Maryland, organized a sign-making event early Tuesday morning to protest.

“It’s to not just allow them to have their grand opening and flaunt this in the community’s face, without having somebody at least saying something,” said Robison, who lives just outside the wind farm on Eagle Rock Road, in regard to the demonstration. “And we’ve been saying something all along.”

Maryland Delegate Wendell Beitzel acknowledged the protesters during brief remarks at the ribbon-cutting celebration, saying he “understands the concerns of those who are for it and against it.”

“The windmills are here now,” Beitzel said. “They’re in place and they’re operating, whether you like them or don’t like them. We’re going to live with them.”