As many as 25 wind turbines one day could tower above a Botetourt County ridgeline, each one more than six times taller than the Mill Mountain Star, with blades as long as the width of a football field.
To help people visualize such a sight, the wind farm’s developer has created computer-generated simulations of what might be seen by residents of nearby towns such as Fincastle and Iron Gate and by motorists on Interstate 81, U.S. 220 and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Dubbed Rocky Forge Wind, the project would generate electricity from wind power captured by a 3.5-mile-long row of turbines on top of North Mountain, each one standing up to 550 feet tall. For comparison, Roanoke’s Mill Mountain Star is 89 feet tall.
Apex Clean Energy of Charlottesville, the project developer, included the simulated views from 10 different locations as part of an application it recently filed with the county’s planning department. Some of the images are also posted to the project’s website, www.rockyforgewind.com.
The aesthetics of turbines – often a key factor in the debate they generate – seems highly subjective.
When the Botetourt County Board of Supervisors held a public hearing in June on a proposed ordinance to regulate wind farms, opponents called the giant windmills eyesores. Supporters saw them as monuments to the green energy movement.
“The top of North Mountain will look like an amusement park,” one speaker said.
“Personally, I think they are quite beautiful,” another countered. “Every time I see a turbine I think of a smoke stack that is not there.”
As imposing as the turbines might be, there won’t be many opportunities to see them up close. Apex plans to put the wind farm on a 7,533-acre tract of leased private woodland, about five miles northeast of Eagle Rock and more than a mile from the nearest homes.
Henry Gum, who lives 1.2 miles away on Dagger Spring Road, would be the nearest neighbor to the wind farm. Gum said he’s not worried in the least about the white steel structures that will rise above the ridge, turning slow cartwheels in the wind.
“I don’t care,” Gum said of the turbines’ appearance. “Wind is free, and I think we need to get away from fossil fuels and polluting the earth.”
From other vantage points, the turbines would not loom nearly as large as they would on Gum’s property.
On Interstate 81, northbound motorists “will likely catch glimpses of the wind turbines” depending on tree cover and land formations, according to the visual impact analysis that Apex conducted with the assistance of Hill Studio in Roanoke. From the Blue Ridge Parkway, the turbines would be mere specks on the horizon, 14 miles to the north.
Motorists heading south on U.S. 220 would have a good view as they approach Eagle Rock, as would those in Iron Gate as they leave the southern town limits.
From the bleachers of the football field at Central Academy Middle School in Fincastle, the turbines would be visible, but harder to spot on the horizon. Residents of Clifton Forge and Lexington might get a peek, depending on their vantage point.
Mountain ridges and trees block the views from other spots closer to the wind farm, such as the courthouse square in Fincastle and the town of Eagle Rock.
Of course, what a wind farm might look like is not the only consideration at stake. In its application for a special exception permit, contained in a binder several inches thick, Apex details how its project would conform to the county’s ordinance, which was passed by the board of supervisors in June.
The ordinance limits the height of turbines to 550 feet. Although it has yet to commit to a specific make or model, Apex cites in its application a turbine with a hub height of 325 feet, with three blades each 211 feet long. That would come just under the height limit, with the blades reaching 430 feet high.
Sounds made by the turbines would be no louder than 60 decibels when heard from the nearest property line. Studies conducted by Apex project that the turbines will meet that requirement, the application states.
Sixty decibels is what a normal conversation sounds like from three feet away. A whisper is 15 decibels; a gunshot, 140.
Another concern, flickering shadows cast by the spinning blades, would occur only in some locations for an average of just 1.5 minutes a day, according to the application. That’s a worst-case scenario, Apex says, and is unlikely to occur because the property is so heavily wooded.
As for the wind farm’s impact on wildlife, the key issue is bats. At other wind farms, bats have been known to be killed by flying into the spinning blades. Two endangered species, the Indiana bat and the northern long-eared bat, are of particular concern.
Assuming that the county grants a permit for the wind farm, Apex then would have to gain approval from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality – a process that would entail the greatest scrutiny of the wind farm’s impact on flora and fauna. In other states, some wind farms have been ordered to stop the turbines at dusk during times when bats are feeding.
If approved, Rocky Forge likely would be the first commercial wind farm in Virginia. Apex has said it hopes to have the blades spinning by late 2017.
Botetourt County officials still are reviewing Apex’s application, which was filed in late October. The county planning commission is not expected to take the matter up until early next year. Public hearings will be held, with a final decision resting with the board of supervisors.
In the meantime, a judge is scheduled to hear arguments Dec. 16 in a lawsuit filed against the county by several residents opposed to the wind farm. The lawsuit’s main contention is that the county’s ordinance fails to protect residents from low-frequency noise, shadow flicker, possible collapse and other dangers posed by the turbines.
But aesthetics could also be an issue, with the lawsuit contending that the county has failed to take into account the impact of turbine views on property values.
“Botetourt County informally includes views in its assessments of property values,” the lawsuit states, “which means that views have value.”
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