If there is organized opposition to the idea of wind turbines in Botetourt County, it was not on display Tuesday.
Of the approximately 40 people who showed up for a public forum on a proposed ordinance that would regulate the giant, power-producing windmills, only a handful seemed to have firm objections. Many more were either in favor of wind energy or somewhere in the middle.
Although the informal nature of the forum made a precise breakdown difficult, a sample of those interviewed were mostly pro-wind – or at least in favor of an ordinance that would address whatever concerns they had.
“At this point, I am amazed at the number of people who are actually in favor of it,” said county Supervisor Jack Leffel, whose Fincastle District includes a site being considered by a wind energy company interested in building up to 25 turbines.
Leffel said he has heard from only a few opponents since February, when news broke that Apex Clean Energy was considering building a wind farm on North Mountain, about 5 miles northeast of Eagle Rock.
“I’m sure there are more, but at this point they haven’t been knocking at my door,” he said.
Apex officials have not made a formal application to the county. But in anticipation of the company’s plans, the board of supervisors and the planning commission have been working on an ordinance that would set the rules for all commercial wind farms.
The public forum – which consisted of people studying information on posters and handouts, talking to county officials and filling out surveys – was the first time the public has had a chance to comment on the draft ordinance. A formal public hearing will come later in the spring.
So far, the public reception to wind turbines in Botetourt County has been far different from what happened five years ago in Roanoke County – where residents opposed to a proposed wind farm on Poor Mountain mobilized early in the process. Although the project was backed by supporters of renewable energy, it eventually was put on hold by a developer that cited the lack of federal tax credits and other incentives.
Some of the same competing issues in that dispute were evident Tuesday.
“I love the idea of wind power. I think it’s a great alternative source,” said Ray Sandifer of Vinton, who is the pastor of several Methodist churches in the Eagle Rock area.
But at the same time, he can understand people’s concerns about how the ridgeline turbines – which could tower higher than the tallest building in downtown Roanoke – could mar scenic views and harm the environment.
“In northern Botetourt County, they basically have one thing to sell, and that’s beauty,” he said.
The sounds made by turbines are also a problem, said Craig Wilkes, who moved to Botetourt County after working as a technician for a wind farm developer in California. “They are very noisy and they require a lot of upkeep,” Wilkes said, adding that he’s glad to see the proposed ordinance requires a plan for decommissioning the turbines after they reach the end of their life span.
Others shared the view expressed on a T-shirt worn by Nasser Abdelhadi: “Make Our Energy Clean.”
“To me, it’s just fascinating,” Abdelhadi said of the idea of using a free and renewable energy source to reduce the country’s dependence on coal-burning power plants and the pollution they cause.
If organized opposition to Apex’s plan does not materialize in Botetourt County, it could be because the site on North Mountain is so remote.
“It is unique in the sense that it is a large, private tract of land and the project would be right in the middle of it,” said Tyson Utt, director of mid-Atlantic development for Apex. Although the Charlottesville company did not make a formal presentation at the public forum, Utt was there to field questions.
“It seems like it’s being pretty well-received,” he said. “At the end of the day, we just wanted to be available so that we could answer questions.”
Although details could change, the county’s draft ordinance calls for a 500-foot height limit on the turbines, which would be allowed on ridgelines in certain areas, including those zoned for agriculture and forest conservation.
Noise generated by the turbines could be no louder than 60 decibels when heard from the nearest property line.
Apex officials have said that if they decided to build in Botetourt County, the turbines could be spinning by 2017 or 2018, producing enough electricity to power 20,000 homes while providing economic benefits to the county.
Virginia currently has no commercial wind farms. But “sooner or later, it’s going to happen,” said Dan Crawford of the local Sierra Club chapter. “It’s just a matter of time.”
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