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Campaign not stirred by wind issue in Roanoke County

Wind energy, an issue in Roanoke County that has whipped citizens into activism this year, may not have much sway in this November’s supervisors’ election, candidates and political leaders say.

It’s the handful of other issues, such as tax rates, county debt and economic development, that have propelled many of the challengers to enter the race and allowed some candidates to avoid using wind energy as a platform.

Still, a proposal for a commercial wind farm on Poor Mountain could come before the board for approval next year or later.

“I think they’d prefer to talk about the normal kinds of issues,” Chip Tarbutton, president of the Roanoke Tea Party, said of this year’s Catawba and Cave Spring District supervisor candidates. “They’re going to need to be at least aware of it, if people bring it up.”

Two of six candidates have solidified their stances on Poor Mountain. Both conservatives, the candidates said they would not vote for a wind farm there.

David Drake, the Republican candidate in the Catawba District, said he hopes to place a small windmill on an 80-acre ranch he owns in Oklahoma.

But he’s against hundreds-feet-tall turbines in Roanoke County, he said last week.

“I don’t think around here it’s a good place for it,” Drake said.

And candidate Stan Seymour in the Cave Spring District said he doesn’t think he’d ever vote yes on a special-use permit for wind energy. Seymour calls himself an active Republican and will be an independent on the ballot.

However, wind isn’t Seymour’s campaign priority.

He said the issues that prompted him to enter the race include unfunded state mandates on local governments and opposition to the economic development plans for South Peak, formerly Slate Hill in south county.

A small percentage of voters may focus on wind when they cast ballots, said Brian Lang, chairman of the county Democrats.

“I don’t think it will be a big factor, actually,” he said.

Candidates’ personal connections to voters and the breadth of their stances may matter more, Lang said.

The county’s Democratic committee hasn’t taken a stance on wind, nor has it endorsed candidates for the two supervisor seats up for election.

The race’s incumbents – Supervisor Charlotte Moore, an independent and former Democrat from the Cave Spring District, and board Chairman Butch Church, a Republican-turned-independent in the Catawba District – voted to set a wind energy zoning policy on Tuesday night.

George Assaid, a Republican challenging Moore, once worked for the county and remembers a similar situation in the 1990s.

U.S. Cellular came to the board for a cell tower in Catawba, one of the first proposed in a rural part of the county.

The board denied it for its proximity to the Appalachian Trail. The company then took the county to federal court, said Paul Mahoney, county attorney.

The lawsuit was eventually settled, The Roanoke Times reported in 1998. But, Mahoney said, the county’s case would have been stronger if the county had a cell-specific ordinance in place.

Assaid said he agrees the board should have passed a zoning policy this week, to prepare in case a wind company applies for a permit.

“Something new could come along at any time,” Assaid said. “The county has to address it. You can’t make it too restrictive to prevent something from coming in.”

He’s more uncertain about setting some specific guidelines, such as the 60-decibel noise limit on a turbine.

If elected, Assaid said, he would weigh how a wind farm proposal would affect property owners’ rights before he decided how to vote.

Both Church and Moore also have refrained from stating their opinions on the Poor Mountain project before a special-use permit request comes before the board. The proposed project lies outside of the Catawba and Cave Spring Districts.

Carter Turner,an independent who once ran for state office as a Democrat, said this week he “wasn’t disappointed” with the board’s decision.

He’s not ready to weigh in on Poor Mountain, though.

“If I’m on the board, I’m going to have to ask a lot of questions and get up there to get a lay of the land,” he said.

Voters in his district, Catawba, are more concerned with business development in west Roanoke County, tax rates and debt than how a wind farm may affect them, he added.

The county now awaits a special-use permit application from Invenergy, the development company that has leased land on Poor Mountain.

The board may change zoning restrictions during the special-use permit process and may deny or pass the application.

Invenergy declined to comment on Friday about when it may file a request.

“Invenergy appreciates the time and thoughtful consideration of the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors,” the company said in a statement. “We will reserve further comment until we can fully review and evaluate the … ordinance.”