August 13, 2013

No local authority on turbines

By Scott Wright, Managing Editor | The Post | Monday, August 12, 2013 |

CENTRE – For reasons dating back over a hundred years, the Cherokee County Commission cannot declare an outright ban on construction of wind turbines, as the Baldwin County Commission did last month.

“This all goes back to home rule,” Probate Judge Kirk Day said last week. “Originally, when the state constitution was set up there was no home rule at all. Everything had to be run through Montgomery, and that was done as a power grab, basically.”

Whenever a county government realizes it wants rules not specifically designated by the constitution – on issues as obscure as beaver control or, more recently, wind turbines – the only solution is to ask the state Senate and House to create them.

Since being written in 1901 the Alabama Constitution has ballooned to well over 600 pages, many of them containing amendments granting these local laws. Voters often see as many as a dozen of these on the back pages of their statewide election ballots; the requests are typically a paragraph or two in length and ask for a simple yes-or-no vote.

“All of those are the result of counties in Alabama having almost no home rule,” Day said.

Perhaps because of its sizeable population and the resulting large legislative representation in Montgomery, Baldwin County didn’t even have to wait for a yes or no vote from the electorate when faced with an unwelcome plan to construct a wind turbine farm on the Alabama coast.

“The Baldwin County Commission asked their legislative delegation to introduce a local act to give them permission to become the permitting authority for wind turbines,” Day said. “They were able to get it passed in an awful hurry, which is an accomplishment,” Day said.

Day said the Legislature did grant counties the opportunity to establish a very limited version of home rule in 2006. Since then, the Cherokee County Commission has used that authority to pass ordinances dealing with animal control and the dumping of illegal sewage into Weiss Lake, among others.

“It was very limited, but it was a good start,” Day said. “Without that, anything we might try to do – using animal control and sewage in the lake as examples – we would have had to go through the Legislature.”

During the final days of the 2013 session, Dist. 10 state Sen. Phil Williams, R-Rainbow City, began work on a bill to establish regulations for wind turbine farms in Alabama. But the session ended before his bill became law.

Williams has already pre-filed a bill (Senate Bill 12) that would grant Alabama’s remaining 66 counties the same authority Baldwin County has regarding wind turbines. He plans to try and pass the bill during the next regular session of the Alabama legislature, which begins in February 2014.

“[The law] will allow a local debate to take place,” Williams said Friday. “It would grant some home rule and make zoning regarding wind farms a local-level decision.”

Williams said his primary goal is to pass a statewide bill. But he also plans to introduce local acts that would grant some zoning authority to Etowah and Cherokee counties – both of which are in his Senate district. Pioneer Green Energy of Texas has proposed building wind farms on sites in both counties.

Day, who also chairs the Cherokee County Commission, said he believes Williams’ attempts to hand control of wind energy decisions to local officials is a good idea.

“Now that there is an interest in wind energy in various parts of the state, there’s a need for legislation,” Day said. “I think it gives the counties some control and is needed, really, so that there is some regulation.”

A spokesman for Pioneer Green Energy recently told The Post he is hopeful construction of a wind farm atop Lookout Mountain will begin before the end of 2013.

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