BEAUFORT – “Trust but verify.”
That was the approach Rep. Pat McElraft, R-Carteret, advised Friday during a crowded specially called meeting of county commissioners, who seek answers on the impacts of a proposed wind turbine and solar energy project near Newport.
The board agreed unanimously and set 6 p.m. Jan. 2, 2014, as the date for a public hearing on enacting a 60-day moratorium on the issuance of any permits for wind energy facilities in Carteret County. The purpose of the moratorium is to give the commissioners the opportunity to review and possibly revise existing ordinances in regard to these type facilities.
Commissioner Jonathan Robinson, one of at least two commissioners who had requested the meeting, offered the motion. He said a night meeting would allow more to attend. But the session will be held in a larger venue, possibly the Crystal Coast Civic Center in Morehead City.
Rep. McElraft said she had met with the project developer, Torch Renewable Energy LLC of Houston, Texas, and company officials assured her they would work with military officials here to address concerns including how the 40 nearly 500-foot-tall turbines and their rotating blades will affect airspace and radar, just two concerns of many that prompted commissioners to hold the meeting.
“My feeling is that we can trust them but we still have to trust and verify,” Rep. McElraft said from the back of the crowded commissioners’ meeting room as attendees who couldn’t find a place peered in from the hallway.
Ms. McElraft said the county should take time to gather more information about the potential impacts. But she said the county should also remain pro-business.
“Let’s not be ugly to Torch. They’re doing what they need to do for their business. But we’re doing what we need to do for our county and that’s protect our military bases and our tourism,” she said.
Torch is listed as a preferred contractor with the U.S. military, and it’s one of 11 companies federally selected to build and install green energy facilities.
Ms. McElraft said company officials promised they would work directly with officials at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point and not just the Pentagon clearinghouse now responsible for dealing with mission-encroachment issues involving energy towers – in lieu of base officials, which Ms. McElraft referred to as “President Obama’s clearinghouse.”
Sen. Norm Sanderson, R-Pamlico, who also represents Carteret, was also in attendance but he mainly deferred to Ms. McElraft, who was a primary sponsor of House Bill 484. The measure, which became law earlier this year, establishes a permitting process for the locating and operation of wind energy facilities – “a good process,” she said.
But the effects on military operations, which could include higher risks of mid-air collisions, encroached flight patterns and false or missed echoes on radar, were not the only concern for attendees at the meeting Friday – or commissioners.
Health effects, economic impact and concerns about wildlife such as migratory birds and narrowed civilian airspace corridors have all been listed as potential problems the turbines could bring, as well as the looming presence of the giant towers visible on the horizon for miles around. Commissioners expressed many of those concerns during the meeting.
The public wasn’t allowed a comment period during the special meeting but comments will be allowed Monday during the board’s regular meeting.
The overflow crowd also lacked the regular option of watching the meeting via closed-circuit TV in the courtroom across the hall because court was in session Friday.
The meeting was recorded and will be aired on Time Warner Cable Channel 10, but air times were not known as of presstime.
County Chairman Greg Lewis said the towers are an important issue to the county, and officials intend to convey information on the project as it becomes available.
The proposed project is still under regulatory review by the N.C. Utilities Commission and the public comment period for that review ends Dec. 23.
The project site falls partly in Newport’s extraterritorial jurisdiction and partly in the county’s jurisdiction.
Newport officials have passed a tall-structures ordinance that would come into play only in its ETJ.
Mr. Lewis said he had met with Duke Energy officials regarding an economic study on pros and cons of green energy but no study has been done.
State environmental regulators have likewise not studied the proposal because, as prescribed in the “484 process,” the project has not reached the stage for environmental permitting review.
Mr. Lewis described a flow chart that illustrated how the military, state wildlife regulators and historic preservation officials and federal agencies including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife and others are invited to participate later on in the process.
County commissioners and boards of municipalities, Craven and Pamlico counties will also participate.
“This is a six-month minimum required process,” Mr. Lewis said. “It will not begin until after the Utilities Commission approves the application.”
Commissioner Elaine Crittenton said the process and the breadth of consideration were overwhelming.
“We are being flooded with information. It’s almost more than we can absorb,” she said.
Ms. Crittenton, who lives near the proposed tower site and works in health care, said she was very concerned with the public health effects, particularly with cochlear or inner-ear illnesses that could be related to turbines.
Commissioner Robin Comer said he had called for a joint meeting with the county planning commission to discuss the project, but that meeting had not been scheduled.
“We need to do that as soon as possible,” he said. “Windmills will be visible all over the county, that could be detrimental to the county. One of our biggest draws is our horizon.”
An economic impact study paid for by the developer and generated by the county was also discussed, as was a federal or independent aviation impact study.
“Torch Energy, I’m sure they’re a good company but we’re stuck with whatever they put in here,” he said.
Ms. Crittenton also expressed concern about safety. She said the site is a forested area with limited fire-protection resources.
“Mill Creek relies on Newport for mutual assistance and these turbines do catch fire. We have a pine forest. We have a lot to talk about,” she said.
Mr. Robinson, who earlier in the meeting expressed anger that more immediate action could not be taken to block the project, also reiterated concern for the military impact, which he said is also economic in nature.
“We’ve been wedded to the military since the 1940s. They’ve looked out for us, and it’s time we look out for them. It’s in our vital interest and welfare to do what we can to speak for them,” he said.
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