MOREHEAD CITY – More than 400 county residents and others came out Thursday to voice their concerns and listen as commissioners voted unanimously to impose a moratorium on the issuance of permits for wind energy facilities.
The board’s action, which followed a public hearing on the matter at the Crystal Coast Civic Center, stalls permitting for such facilities for 60 days. More than 60 signed up to comment during the hearing.
“We have given ourselves more time to look into this matter and proceed from what we learn,” said Chairman Jonathan Robinson after the vote.
The moratorium, which was enacted immediately following the proceedings, expires March 2.
The move was prompted by a proposal from Torch Renewable Energy LLC of Houston, Texas, for a 40-turbine wind and solar energy facility near Newport.
Concerns expressed during the hearing largely focused on the potential negative impacts the 492-foot-tall structures could have on the airspace used by nearby Cherry Point.
“Let’s face it, if the military can’t train here, they won’t stay here and we can’t afford that risk,” said Pine Knoll Shores Mayor Ken Jones.
So far, military officials have been mum on possible encroachment by the project.
Rocky Ray, vice president of development for Torch, told commissioners the company was in negotiations to mitigate any possible airspace encroachment.
“We’re still focused primarily on the military,” Mr. Ray said. “We want to make sure this is a complementary project to their operations … that’s not only the public’s number one priority but our number one priority as well.”
Torch is to meet with officials from Cherry Point at the end of the month, he said.
Protection of the air station and its economic role is of paramount importance when discussing the facility, residents said.
“If we are going to seriously protect Cherry Point, the only option is to not have a wind farm at that location,” said Havelock Mayor Will Lewis.
Residents also raised questions on the economic viability of an energy source that relies on unpredictable factors, such as wind.
“I just want to say that wind power is far from competitive in today’s marketplace and it is an extremely expensive power source that can only survive if it continues to receive massive taxpayer subsidies,” said Pine Knoll Shores Commissioner John Brodman.
Protection of habitat and wildlife in the area was also a big concern at the hearing. Many addressed concern over maintaining bird and bat populations, which could be threatened by the spinning turbines. Speakers cited the presence of hunting and recreation grounds of raptors, including bald eagles, in the proximity of the site.
Others spoke in favor of renewable resources and the mindset such projects could bring to the Crystal Coast.
“By implementing wind energy it shows that this is a forward-thinking area that will attract a young, thriving population,” said Abigail VanPelt, a senior at Croatan High School and organizer of the local Young Democrats of America chapter. “These wind turbines can represent what Carteret County is – a beautiful, young, up-and-coming coastal community.”
Several groups joined Ms. VanPelt in her support of alternative energy, including the Surfrider Foundation, the N.C. Sierra Club, N.C. Interfaith Power and Light and the Coastal Wind Coalition.
But most hearing attendees expressed support for the moratorium, which was first proposed during the November 2013 commissioners meeting by Commissioner Robinson, who said it would allow the county further time to explore its wind options before a permit application is submitted.
“The commissioners need this extra time to fully understand all the potential repercussions of their decision,” said Penny Hooper, a Smyrna resident. “Right now, in this state, 60 percent of our electricity is generated by coal … of course, coal is cheap, because we do not put into the figures what it costs us for climate change.”
Torch has yet to submit a permit application to the county for the turbine project. Future applications will be subject to any changes made to the county’s tall structures ordinance during the moratorium period.
Commissioners are scheduled to meet with the planning board at 5 p.m. Monday in the county administration building for a joint work session to discuss possible amendments to the ordinance.
“Our ordinance, it’s five years old, so it’s about time we re-examine it at our level,” said Mr. Robinson.
In the meantime, Torch plans to proceed with communications with military officials and develop a comprehensive plan to study areas of concern.
“We’ll soon kick off all our studies, we’re doing reconnaissance now,” Mr. Ray said. “We’ll have more forthcoming in the months ahead with regards to noise, sound, flickers, environment, avian and bat. It’s ongoing.”
All impact studies required of Torch will be contracted out to independent firms, rather than conducted by the company itself, he said.
The firm’s plans call for construction of the turbines and an array of solar panels on land that is partially in the county’s jurisdiction and partially in Newport’s extraterritorial jurisdiction or ETJ.
The tract near Mill Pond is owned in part by Weyerhaeuser LLC, which would lease the land to Torch. A private owner owns another portion of the site.
Two Weyerhaeuser representatives were on hand for the hearing – both supporting the moratorium, but standing firm that wind energy is a good fit for both Carteret County and Weyerhaeuser, which owns roughly 30,000 acres in Carteret County.
“A wind project can coexist with sustainable timber management,” said Alissa Cale, land adjustment manager for Weyerhaeuser. “I can tell you that there will not be a 3,000-acre clear-cut, the forest will continue to be maintained and managed by sustainable standards.”
Torch has not previously worked with or leased land from Weyerhaeuser for such a project, Mr. Ray said.
Many town officials also attended the hearing, including the Pine Knoll Shores council, several Craven County representatives, Newport Mayor Dennis Barber, and other officials from Havelock, in addition to Mayor Lewis.
“Moving forward … our city would love to extend any assistance that we may be able to provide (and) any information that you would request,” said Mayor Lewis.
Others noted that the project has yet to go through the permitting surveys and studies that are intended to expose potential impacts.
“Projects like Mill Pond must go through a stringent, exhaustive state and federal government permitting process. We have full faith in these processes and the existing tall structures ordinance here in Carteret County and that all safety needs, military concerns and private landowner rights will be considered,” said Nancy Thompson, community affairs manager for Weyerhaeuser. “I would not stand before you to support any ordinance or project that I believed in any way compromised the integrity of this beautiful area.”
Other elected officials, including Commissioner Robin Comer and Rep. Pat McElraft, R-Carteret, have recently expressed reservations about the project.
Mr. Ray said Torch hopes to pursue a working relationship with area officials.
“There has been a notion that this is a fight – this is not a fight,” he said. “This should be a collaboration. We don’t want to fight. We want to be a quality member of the community.”
Commissioners didn’t comment on the project Thursday, but Mr. Robinson said the board does not discount wind energy and is examining the issue further.
“It could have potential here, but I have some concerns over a (project of this size) and what damage it could do,” Mr. Robinson said. “I have some reservations about the funding and tax credits that go into these projects.”
This moratorium is the second of its kind for Carteret County.
Commissioners moved to impose a moratorium on building permits to towers, electricity generating windmills and other similar structures on March 3, 2008, during which time county planning officials developed the current ordinance.
“We pioneered one of the first a strongest ordinances in the state,” said Mr. Robinson.
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