The Somerset County Planning Commission’s work session on its wind turbine ordinance featured the kind of feedback expected from a discussion that could have long lasting implications for the county.
From alternative energy advocates to at least one woman who described herself as “diametrically opposed” to all forms of green energy, county residents used the meeting as an opportunity to air any number of grievances they have with a proposed 50-wind turbine project.
At issue was a two and 1/2 year ordinance governing the terms of wind turbine construction and development, one that was meant to address an application from Pioneer Green Energy to develop their own wind turbine farm in the county.
The meeting reviewed everything from the minimum distance turbines would have to be set back from homes to the impact the turbines would have on the local bald eagle population.
For about an hour and a half, the meeting was full of tension.
A major point of contention with many people in attendance was the noise the turbines would be generating near homes.
The current ordinance calls for the turbines to be at least 1,000 feet away from homes who are not the property owners participating in the project.
Ryan Taylor, a bioacoustics expert and professor at Salisbury University, said while the decibel levels generated by the turbines would fit underneath current laws, the way they are currently measured are misleading due to their low frequency nature.
He pointed to New Zealand, which recently set its legal low frequency decibel levels at 30 decibels in response to concerns of wind turbine developments in the country.
“The turbines need to be set back at least 4,000 feet to bring down sounds to an ambient level,” said Taylor, adding that measure would be “about 25 decibels (a).”
Planning board member countered he had gone on a cross country trip testing the noise levels of various wind turbine projects and he “only heard the wind through the propellers,” saying he couldn’t hear sound from the generators from the turbines even at varying distances away.
Pioneer Green Energy’s Development Manager Paul Harris was at the forefront of the debate, addressing most of the public’s and the board’s concerns.
Board member Carol Samus expressed her concerns over the height of the turbines, saying that after seeing a turbine outside of a state police barrack near Princess Anne that was 330 feet tall, she became worried about the aesthetics of having several turbines in the county.
“600-foot towers above our 100-foot tree line are certainly going to show,” said Samus.
Harris said as per Pioneer Green’s filings with the Federal Aviation Administration, the turbines would not be above 599 feet tall and to lower them too much would limit their effectiveness in generating power.
He said as the technology has evolved over the past 30 years, “you’re getting much more electricity out of one turbine than out of a number of (smaller) turbines.”
“We could put a number of smaller turbines, but we would need more,” he added.
Board member Mary Fleury wanted assurances the turbines would not effect the area’s inherit bald eagle and raptor population, something others at the meeting were also concerned about.
According to the Wildlife Society, approximately 573,000 birds were killed in the United States last year due to wind farms throughout the country. In comparison, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Science estimated in 2002 that communication towers kill between 4 million and 5 million birds per year.
Harris added Pioneer Green has “flown to the site a number of times to see if there are eagles’ nests” and has plans to set back the turbines from those nests as week as avoid the Pocomoke River and Chesapeake Bay where the birds are known to fish.
“We’ve actually shrunk the project size more than half in order to avoid those specific areas,” said Harris.
Commission member Kevin Anderson also brought up the issue of the tax revenue the project is expected to bring to the county.
“What guaranteed revenue does the county have if the landowner doesn’t live in the state of Maryland?” said Anderson, alluding to the fact the company is based in Austin, Texas.
After a discussion as to whether the company would apply to become a licensed utility to avoid paying taxes, Harris said the company would set up an agreement where after Pioneer Green was done developing the turbines, they would be handed off to a long-term owner. Those owners “would be paying personal property taxes” for the life of the project, said Harris.
Based on a University of Baltimore study, the project would generate approximately $44 million in tax revenue over 30 years if approved, he added.
Many questioned the timing of the ordinance’s review, with some on the commission including Tammy Truitt who expressed her concern that many of the materials being discussed were not readily available at the meeting.
After 90 minutes of the commission, public and Pioneer Green discussing their concerns about the environment, property values and noise, the sides will meet again on Sept. 4 for a meeting specifically to facilitate public comment.
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