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Virginia General Assembly strikes down tall structures legislation

RICHMOND, Va. – Legislation that could have trumped Tazewell County’s two-year-old ridgeline protection ordinance has died in the General Assembly.

The measure introduced last week by Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, D-Springfield, sought to provide exemptions to electric utilities from local zoning and land use requirements. Area leaders argued the bill was an attempt to override a local county ordinance that prohibits the development of tall structures, including wind turbines, on East River Mountain and other protected ridgelines.

The legislation in question was killed in committee Tuesday, Sen. Phillip Puckett, D-Russell, said.

“A lot of people don’t like the undermining of local ordinances,” Puckett said. “This had a bad taste to start with. Not just for Tazewell County, but a lot of counties.”

Saslaw’s bill would have exempted certain electrical generation facilities powered by renewable sources of energy from local zoning and land use requirements.

Dominion and BP jointly purchased a 2,600-acre tract of land on East River Mountain in 2008 with a vision of developing a large-scale wind turbine farm near Bluefield, Va. BP later withdrew from the project with Dominion acquiring full ownership of the land. However, the project was stalled in early 2010 after a ridgeline protection ordinance, also referred to as the tall structure ordinance, was adopted by the county Board of Supervisors on a 3-2 vote.

Puckett said he spoke with representatives of Dominion Energy, who assured him the measure introduced by Saslaw was not a bill advocated by the company. Representatives of Dominion also contacted Tazewell County Administrator Jim Spencer and Bluefield, Va., Mayor Don Harris last week to assure them the utility was not advocating Saslaw’s bill, Puckett said.

“I think a lot of people here at the Capitol were a little concerned about that,” Puckett said. “It was just too broad to let something like that effect local ordinances.”

Puckett said there are places in Virginia where wind turbines will work, and places where they won’t.

“There is right now a significant move for offshore windmills,” Puckett said. “My guess is that is where we are probably going if we do something on wind. He (Gov. Bob McDonnell) is supportive of that.”

Although President Barack Obama made a renewed pledge to battle climate change earlier this month in his inauguration address through new wind and solar energy projects, it could be difficult for utilities companies to develop wind turbines on East River Mountain in Tazewell County as long as the local tall structure ordinance remains in effect.

An appellate board was established in 2010 by the county supervisors to hear challenges to the tall structure ordinance. However, to date, no one has appeared before the board.