After climbing Buck Mountain, Edward Palubinsky sat on a rock to rest, to reminisce about hunting and to point out wind turbines in the distance.
A few paces from his old hunting spot, he found a stake with a twist of pink ribbon and “Turbine 30” written on the wood.
Palubinsky fears what the stake signifies.
In place of the 3-foot stick, a wind turbine 425 feet tall with three blades 147 feet long might rise on the spot by next year.
A developer plans to install 30 towers on the ridge in North Union Township, Schuylkill County, and across the Columbia County line into Beaver Township.
“I’m worried about the windmills changing the township forever,” Palubinsky said. “The wildlife, the reptile life, the snakes, the birds, everything will be affected.
“The view will be awful – blinking red lights, turbines spinning all night long … Things will just change forever. We won’t have the beautiful scenery that we’ve had forever. It will turn into an industrial-type area rather than a natural, beautiful area.”
Six years ago Palubinsky attended a meeting at the North Union Township Municipal Building to hear about plans from a company proposing the wind farm then. He was satisfied when a speaker from Penn Wind LLC of Sunbury, Northumberland County, said people in North Union Township would only see tips of a few rotor blades.
“That was hooey,” Palubinsky said more recently.
Now he believes people will see the towers from all sides of the mountain, which he drove around one morning last month.
On the drive, he pointed out the Red Rock Campground where he worked as a boy, a farm where he had been employed and a turn-off near the Nuremberg Cemetery.
“This is the spot I pulled over at all my life, watching the sun set,” he said while the car idled.
Now from those vantage points and from the deck of his home on Millers Road, Palubinsky thinks when he looks for the stars he will see blinking red warning lights instead.
The company’s plan
When Penn Wind’s representatives addressed the Schuylkill County Zoning Board in 2009, they said the wind farm wouldn’t change the character of the neighborhood.
A real estate appraiser, Richard Drzewiecki, testified for Penn Wind and said the wind farm wouldn’t impair the use of nearby land or harm property values.
In its application for zoning approval, Penn Wind pointed out that the Buck Mountain Wind Farm will only be 10 miles the from Locust Ridge Wind Farm, the turbines that Palubinsky already can see from Buck Mountain.
The climb up Buck Mountain is steep, up logging roads that strain calf muscles. Palubinsky, 64, keeps rental properties but is retired from driving trucks and remodeling homes. He paused a few times for a breather while walking up the mountain.
The incline is what gave wind to Penn Wind’s zoning application.
Justin Dunkleberger, Penn Wind’s chief executive officer, testified in 2009 that the slope and rocky terrain cause a hardship for building homes. Part of the project was proposed for land zoned conservation residential, where the county seeks to conserve the forests, watercourses and other natural features but permits homes on lots 2 acres or larger.
“A renewable energy source facility is one of the best options for (conservation) without disturbing large areas of land,” Penn Wind said in a document provided to the zoners. Wind turbines won’t strain the county’s and township’s budgets as much as would homes, whose owners would require police and fire protection, the zoning documents state.
No one challenged the testimony of Drzewiecki and Dunkleberger, the county zoning board noted when granting Penn Wind’s request to install the turbines on Aug. 6, 2009.
Six years ensued without construction, so residents like Palubinsky figured Penn Wind dropped the plan.
Penn Wind did drop out, but another company, Pattern Development, took over two years ago.
Pattern Development works with wind power worldwide from offices in Houston, San Francisco and elsewhere.
Normally, the zoning approval for the wind farm would have expired in a year; a rule gives developers that long to start building or else they must reapply.
Because the Great Recession dried up financing for builders, however, the Pennsylvania Legislature enacted a law that extended the duration of permits.
The law gives Pattern Development until July 2, 2016, to substantially complete the wind farm, a deadline that the developers aren’t sure they can meet.
“I am confident that we will be under construction at this time but not yet fully operational. How do we deal with this situation as it would be problematic for our lenders to have to go through the zoning process with the county again if we are under construction?” Natalie McCue of Pattern Development wrote to Schuylkill County Planning Director Susan Smith on Aug. 25, 2014.
Barry Travelpiece, engineer for the Columbia County Conservation District, said some work began at two tower sites in Columbia County in December 2014.
Matt Dallas of Pattern Development said construction for the whole project could start this fall if the developers can obtain a power contract.
The wind turbines will generate enough electricity to supply 25,000 homes, Pattern Development said in a fact sheet.
Once built, wind turbines churn out electricity without producing carbon emissions or other gases that add to climate concerns.
Across Pennsylvania, wind farms help meet a goal of state law to generate 18 percent of retail power from renewable and advanced energy sources by 2019.
Schuylkill County’s growth management plan recommends taking advantage of mountains in the north where the wind is strong enough to make turbines practical.
“Opportunities to harness wind power in Schuylkill County and generate energy jobs should be encouraged,” the plan says.
On March 27, U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-17, Moosic, visited the 6-year-old Locust Ridge wind project in Schuylkill County.
“The more wind turbines we can install … the more energy independent America gets and in a clean way,” Cartwright told a reporter from The Republican Herald of Pottsville, a Times-Shamrock newspaper.
While Palubinsky worries that the wind farm will unsettle people and wildlife on Buck Mountain, the developers outlined how they will minimize ill effects.
The project in Schuylkill County takes in 1,164 acres, but the developers only plan to permanently affect 15 acres with gravel bases for turbines and access roads as wide as 36 feet on which cranes will travel between turbines.
In zoning documents, the developers say they will use existing lumber roads and stream crossings where they can.
They identified wetlands, which they will fence off during construction.
A survey by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission found no historic or archaeological sites on the acreage.
A review by federal agencies determined that the turbines won’t block radio frequencies.
Penn Wind pledged to secure $1 million of insurance against any damage that vibrations from the turbines might cause.
The wind farm will be built on three large tracts currently used for hunting and recreation.
Documents in the zoning application say David Yamulla Jr. and Claudette Angelo, both of Hazleton, share ownership of 737 acres with a fair market value of $74,560. They have a lease with Penn Wind.
James Garman of Sunbury purchased other parcels involved in the project from John Templeton Jr. of Bryn Mawr, Delaware County, a few months after the zoning case ended for $415,000.
“The proposed wind farm lease will include a permitted hunting clause and will not disturb any existing activities,” Penn Wind said in its zoning application. “To date, studies performed for the PA Game Commission and other known entities have shown no disturbance to wild turkeys, the whitetail deer population or other big game species known to this area.”
The Pennsylvania Game Commission, Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service all said they anticipate that the wind farm will have no effect on threatened or endangered species.
A map of Pennsylvania in the zoning application highlighted 83 regions and flyways beneath the headline: “The site is not identified as an important Bird Area.”
Penn Wind took surveys of breeding birds, raptors and bats in 2008. A document in the zoning application says the surveys would be done in 2009 but reported “No adverse findings.”
Worldwide, wind farms kill hundreds of thousands of birds a year and even more bats, which can fly into the spinning blades but also suffer fatal internal injuries from the air pressure changes near the blades.
Birds can withstand those pressure changes, but raptors in flight depend on the wind, just as turbine builders do, said Keith Bildstein, director of conservation science at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Kempton, Berks County.
“That doesn’t mean they can’t work together,” said Bildstein, who reviewed a guidance document for determining the impact of wind turbines on birds for the National Wind Coordinating Collaborative in 1999.
In projects with 100 or more turbines, five or fewer of the turbines might kill 80 percent or 90 percent of the birds that perish at the site, Bildstein said.
“It’s incumbent on us to place units where they’re least likely to do damage,” he said.
Places to avoid, for example, include roosts of turkey vultures and black vultures.
Palubinsky saw vultures soaring when he drove around Buck Mountain.
While Penn Wind wrote that its bat study raised “No concern,” the company said it caught a small-footed bat in a net. The zoning application didn’t say if researchers found where the bat hibernates, but part of Yamulla’s land had been mined previously.
Small-footed bats are vulnerable to white-nose syndrome, a disease that decimated species of bats that hibernate in caves and mines. The small-footed bat is rare enough, however, that it was listed as a threatened and protected species in Pennsylvania before the disease appeared a decade ago.
“Commercial wind turbine installations have emerged as a threat to bat populations in general, and could affect eastern small-footed bats, however it is probably not the most vulnerable species because of its low-flying habits,” the Game Commission’s fact sheet about the small-footed bat says.
By saying the wind farm is not expected to affect any threatened species, the commission’s position toward the project differed from what the commission did in Upper Lehigh, where the same bat might live.
In Upper Lehigh, Pagnotti Enterprises wants to renew a mining permit. The commission asked Pagnotti to build rock piles where the bats could live in the summer, to avoid cutting trees during the roosting season and to take other steps to conserve the bat’s habitat.
Asked about the different responses, a spokesman for the commission forwarded a copy of a wind agreement that developers have signed voluntarily.
The agreement says developers will monitor bat kills for at least a year after turbines start spinning.
A study in Canada cited in the agreement said operators reduced bat deaths by 60 percent by starting turbines when wind reaches 5.5 meters per second, rather than 4 meters per second.
While turbine blades pose threats to creatures that fly, Palubinsky said cranes and trucks that install turbines and roads will threaten a creature that crawls.
Timber rattlesnakes live on Buck Mountain.
“Local people know: Don’t go up there in summer,” Palubinsky said while hiking when snow remained on the mountain and pointing out rocky areas where snakes could spend the winter.
Although timber rattlesnakes are found in most of the eastern United States, the snakes are growing more isolated. Ohio and Indiana list them as endangered, a fact sheet prepared by the Center for Reptile and Amphibian Conservation and Management in Fort Wayne, Indiana, says.
“I’m not a big rattlesnake fan, but I hate to see them disappear,” Palubinsky said.
Penn Wind hired a forester, Rich Pais, to study rattlesnakes on Buck Mountain, but his report wasn’t finished when the zoning application was submitted.
The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission is considering a request to provide the report to the Standard-Speaker.
Noise and shadows
No houses or buildings are on the land where the turbines would rise on Buck Mountain.
Penn Wind agreed to follow the state’s model ordinance that says the distance between roads or property lines and turbines should be at least 1.1 times the turbine’s height. That’s 467.5 feet for the Buck Mountain project.
Also, the ordinance sets the minimum distance between turbines and homes at five times the height of a turbine’s hub, or 1,310 feet for the project. Two of the closest homes on Buck Mountain Road would be 1,323 feet and 1,389 feet from turbines. That’s approximately one-quarter mile.
Twelve turbines are planned for Schuylkill County and 18 for Columbia County. A proposal to put four turbines in Black Creek Township, Luzerne County, was dropped after Black Creek added a wind turbine ordinance to its zoning rules.
In Black Creek, the developers plan to construct a building and install power lines, and will drive onto the property from Tomhicken Road.
Maps included in the zoning application mark the hours a year that turbines could cast shadow flicker on neighboring properties.
Shadow flicker is alternating light intensity caused when a rotating blade interferes with very low-angle sunlight, the application states.
The most hours of shadow flicker will occur on unoccupied land north of the turbines.
South of the proposed string of turbines, homes stand along Buck Mountain Road, where shades on the map indicate that shadow flicker will range from nothing to 50 hours per year.
Similar maps indicate how noise is expected to radiate from the turbines.
Buck Mountain Road lies between bands of 45 and 50 decibels.
Noise from a quiet street registers at 50 decibels, a chart included with the zoning application says.
Main Street in Nuremberg and most of that village fall between the bands of 35 and 40 decibels, the level of a quiet room. That’s quieter than required by North Union’s noise ordinance, which permits 70 decibels during the day and 60 decibels at night.
The American Wind Energy Association said the noise of wind tends to mask turbine noise.
“The only occasional exception to this general rule occurs when a wind plant is sited in hilly terrain where nearby residences are in dips or hollows downwind that are sheltered from the wind – in such a case, turbine noise may carry further than on flat terrain,” an association statement included in the zoning documents says.
Roy Mengal can’t see wind turbines, which are at least three miles from his home in Frackville, but the noise from them keeps him awake.
Mengal said the sound pulsates “almost like Chinese water torture.”
Supervisors in Mahanoy Township, where wind turbines went up six years ago, haven’t heard complaints from their constituents.
Supervisor Sharon Chiao said a homeowner thought the humming turbines would keep him awake. After construction finished, the homeowner told Chiao that he didn’t notice the sound.
“I think they’re a blessing,” Chiao said. “To begin with, the wind is free. It’s not another smokestack throwing dirt.”
Mahanoy Township Supervisor James Stevens said the owners of the Locust Ridge Wind Farm make payments in lieu of taxes to the township.
In North Union Township, Supervisor Gary Croll is mystified about why wind farms don’t have to pay taxes on the improvements that they make to property, even though other landowners pay more taxes if they build a home or other improvement on their property.
A representative from Pattern Development, which expects to spend $60 million on the Buck Mountain turbines, told Croll the company might consider paying something to the township.
Developers have offered payments to residents along Buck Mountain Road to compensate them if the turbines cause shadow flicker, noise or other inconvenience.
Palubinsky obtained a copy of an agreement that offered residents $2,000 plus annual payments of $4,000 for 25 years.
In return, the developer, listed as Buck Mountain Wind Energy LLC of San Francisco, can exceed limits for noise and distance to neighboring properties set by a Schuylkill County zoning law in 2010. North Union Township follows the county’s zoning laws because it doesn’t have its own zoning ordinance, in contrast with municipalities such as Black Creek.
While the new Schuylkill law doesn’t apply to the permit granted to the developers in 2009, it would apply if the company missed a deadline for construction and had to reapply.
The new law says noise from turbines cannot exceed 45 adjusted decibels at a home. Also, the law sets the minimum distance between a turbine and a home as thrice the height of a turbine, measured to the highest reach of a blade tip.
Tammy Mott, who lives near the project site, hasn’t reached a conclusion about the wind turbines. She said she has read positive and negative points about them.
Michele Houser said she moved to Millers Road for the tranquility.
“If it disturbs the quiet, I’d have a problem with it,” she said of the project.
Other neighbors who have listed telephone numbers and answering machines didn’t return telephone messages asking about the project.
Six years ago when representatives of Penn Wind visited homes on Buck Mountain Road, they found 10 supporters, including two families whose homes would be one-quarter mile from a turbine. One homeowner opposed the project and two families were non-committal. Another 15 people weren’t home.
On Monday, when Croll and the other North Union supervisors hold their monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m., he doesn’t expect many residents will speak against the wind turbines.
The county zoning board has already decided the case, and Croll doubts that it will reconsider unless Pattern Development misses the construction deadline and has to reapply for approval.
Other than Palubinsky, no one has told Croll that they oppose the wind project.
Palubinsky first shared his thoughts about the wind farm in a letter to the editor published in the Standard-Speaker on March 13.
He said the letter was the first thing that he has written since high school, and he tried not to offend anyone with his words.
If township residents support him at the meeting on Monday, Palubinsky said he is willing to further the cause.
He thinks Buck Mountain would make a great state park and believes the government could buy the land for much less than the developers will spend building turbines.
If not, perhaps, as he wrote in the letter when quoting Bob Dylan, “It’s all over now Baby Blue.”
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