Wind energy is not a topic anyone in Bath or Highland is fond of, understandably.
Since the issue first surfaced nearly nine years ago, the debate about the merits of an uncertain industry has overshadowed many other important issues.
Highland New Wind Development LLC is the company that proposed an industrial wind energy utility on Allegheny Mountain, and though nearly four years have passed since it got the go-ahead from the state to construct 400-foot towers, it remains in limbo. In fact, this year alone, it seems nary a rock has been moved on the high-elevation site in westernmost Highland County.
Meanwhile, its local conditional use permit, issued in July 2005, still exists; Highland citizens have paid hundreds of thousands in related expenses with their taxpayer dollars; and no one seems to know when, or if, that money will ever be recaptured.
County planners annually review permits for things like tourist lodges and storage yards, but the commission has long felt county supervisors took over control – and responsibility – for HNWD’s permit. Planners washed their hands of it, declined to be the reviewing entity, and handed that job back to the board of supervisors.
Since then, despite legal threats, the supervisors have since required no new site plan, federal incidental take permit, or even an update on progress from the company’s owners.
This board has continuously budgeted thousands of dollars for legal fees and special inspections – spending $400,000-$500,000 by some estimations over the years in support of the project, even though not one dime in tax revenue has been collected.
The Recorder interviewed the four candidates running for the board of supervisors in this year’s general elections recently; though they appear to share similar opinions about creating jobs, tourism, and taxes, opinions differed when it came to the HNWD project.
Two candidates – Lee Blagg and Jerry Rexrode – were on the board in 2005, and voted in favor of granting HNWD’s permit. It was a 2-1 vote, with supervisor Robin Sullenberger dissenting.
Asked about their current stance, Blagg didn’t seem at all sure how he felt about it now. He said the project was the reason he declined to run for another term on the board in the 2007 elections, and that how he feels now depends on the project’s progress. “Is it moving forward? Is it standing still? How do you allocate money to do what?” he responded to our questions.
Blagg, perhaps, is less clear about the support he offered six years ago.
Rexrode, on the other hand, backs the utility firmly, and is committed to spending his constituents’ money on it. “I think we’ve made the decision and legally, we’re going to have to spend what’s necessary to defend our decision,” he said. He remains fast in his belief that if the plant is ever built, good revenue for the county will follow. “If they were up and running, you’re looking at one entity that could be paying 10 percent of the real estate taxes,” he said recently.
Maybe, maybe not.
There has never been a firm, guaranteed, dollar amount associated with the tax revenue the project might generate for Highland because the county can’t determine what that is. If it’s ever built, the State Corporation Commission is charged with assessing its value, not Highland County. Generally, the number we’ve been told since 2005 is that HNWD could pay as much as $200,000 a year in taxes. Would the county get that entire amount? Other counties with wind energy plants have not seen nearly the revenue they expected; how can Highland feel confident that number is close?
At this point, it would take 2-3 years of HNWD in operation to cover what we, county citizens, have contributed so far. And that’s just in actual dollars spent in legal fees and related paperwork.
What candidates David Blanchard (incumbent) and Kevin Wagner question is: How long should the county keep budgeting and spending for this project when there’s no clear date even for construction or operation?
They object to an open-ended schedule where the county sets aside thousands annually for something that may never be constructed. That, Blanchard said, “is not what the taxpayers thought they were getting, whether they’re indifferent to the project, in favor or against it … it shouldn’t cost the county a dime once it’s approved.”
From Wagner’s perspective, as an active chamber board member and current president, the untold loss reaches well beyond the county budget or actual expenses. He points to a dramatic drop in the number of people interested in moving to Highland County.
The year before HNWD got its local permit, in 2004, the chamber received 342 requests for relocation information. By 2007, when the project got its state permit, such requests from potential residents had dropped to 45.
“We probably began our own recession several years before the rest of the country,” Wagner said.
Yet here we are, another four years later, spending money on inspections, budgeting thousands in legal expenses that could be earmarked for something else, and struggling to effectively market Highland to new residents.
If there’s ever a case of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face, this must be it.
Considering how desperate this county is for a population boost, why are we driving people away? Considering how desperate we want to support our schools, why are we diverting thousands annually in the budget for a wind plant that does not exist?
Let’s put an end to this debilitating issue once and for all.
We need to put our money, effort, and time behind ideas that stimulate jobs and our local economy, instead dumping dollars indefinitely into a phantom project few believe will ever be built.
Highland citizens have more pressing issues, and fewer dollars than ever. We think our residents want to bring this divisive, controversial and expensive topic to a close, before Mr. Rexrode dips into our pockets any deeper.