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Roanoke County mulls wind farm

Wind farm or no wind farm on the horizon, Roanoke County supervisors plan to set parameters tonight for companies that may want to build large turbines within county borders.

A proposed zoning ordinance for industrial or commercial scale windmills hangs before the supervisors at their meeting tonight. Each of the five supervisors said recently that they plan to pass it, perhaps with some changes, as a way to protect residents.

The board delayed voting on the issue after four hours of public comments on wind energy at its last meeting.

“This is not about a particular project,” said board member Charlotte Moore of the Cave Spring District. “I don’t think we should put things off just because it’s complicated and confusing. I think something’s better than nothing, and we can learn as we go.”

On the other hand, the wind-energy ordinance could signal the county’s acceptance of wind farms, some say.

“I’m for windmills,” said Supervisor Ed Elswick, who represents the Windsor Hills District. “They just got to be in a place where they don’t affect people’s lives.”

Elswick and each of his boardmates plan to bring their own tweaks of the plan to the discussion.

The supervisors said they expect to take parts of the ordinance line by line and vote on each point. In doing so, the board will address how much noise turbines may emit, how far they must stand from property lines and homes, and other points.

For instance, Moore said the limits that windmills must set back from homes shouldn’t be too strict. Elswick said the distances should be decided depending on the situation.

“You’d have to be a blooming idiot to want these things in your back yard,” he said.

In the proposed ordinance, windmills must stand at least a half-mile from any residence, a guideline that wind farm advocates have opposed.

Currently, Roanoke County’s zoning code doesn’t address wind-related issues such as noise and setbacks. Any company’s proposal for turbines up until now would not need to address those specifics.

“If someone would come with a petition, we would be up against the wall with what do we have, what do we do,” said board Chairman Butch Church of the Catawba District.

Church said he’s open to discussion on the issues within the ordinance.

Invenergy, a Chicago-based company, has leased land on Poor Mountain and announced plans to build 15 to 18 turbines there.

The firm hasn’t applied for a special-use permit with the county to build yet. Special-use permits address specific project plans and can amend rules set by zoning ordinances, Church said.

If Invenergy does apply to build, it would face tighter guidelines with a county wind ordinance than with the utilities code the county has now, said board member Mike Altizer of the Vinton District. Plus, the special-use permit scrutiny would remain a hurdle to any company looking to build.

Each supervisor has declined to state a position on Invenergy’s plan.

“We have nothing to look at, nothing to base an opinion on,” said board member Richard Flora of the Hollins District.

Still, any guidelines that the supervisors might pass, said Eldon Karr of Bent Mountain, could promote and invite wind-energy development in the county.

“It opens the door,” Karr said of the proposed ordinance. “It provides keys to the wind industry to the Blue Ridge.”

County leaders haven’t yet addressed the fundamental issue beneath the ordinance they plan to debate, Karr added: whether wind energy is a good use for any of the county’s land.

The supervisors’ biweekly meeting begins at 2 p.m. today at the county administration center. Their discussion and vote on the wind-energy ordinance is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m.