FINCASTLE – The wind was blowing about 5 mph at a Botetourt County middle school Monday night when inside, the county’s planning commission recommended approval of a project that one day might turn that breeze into electricity.
By a unanimous vote, the five-member panel supported a special exception permit sought by Apex Clean Energy, a renewable energy company that wants to build a row of giant turbines on top of North Mountain.
The permit application now goes to the Botetourt County Board of Supervisors for final action. If Apex can win county, state and federal approval in the coming months, it will be on track to have Virginia’s first commercial wind farm running by late 2017.
As currently proposed, the wind farm would consist of up to 25 turbines, each one as tall as 550 feet, that would be arranged in a Y-shaped formation traversing two ridgelines – producing enough electricity to power 20,000 homes when tapped into a nearby utility line.
Although the wind in Fincastle did not seem swift enough Monday night to propel such a project, it was likely much stronger on top of North Mountain.
In its permit application, Apex said two years of testing have found an average wind speed of between 15 and 20 mph where the ridgeline turbines will stand, reaching elevations of between 2,700 and 4,000 feet above sea level.
“This average wind speed is considered a strong resource in Virginia,” the permit application stated.
The prevailing winds of public opinion grew stronger at a public hearing that preceded the commission’s vote, where 10 of the 14 speakers supported using green energy to reduce the country’s reliance on fossil fuels, with what they called minimal impact to the environment.
“There is no mining, no fracking, no drilling,” said Sherry Crumley of Buchanan, a former board member of the state’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Several people who live in areas impacted by a proposed natural gas pipeline said they would have preferred a wind farm.
But support was not unanimous among the crowd of about 75 people who attended the public hearing at Central Academy Middle School, which the planning commission selected as a special meeting site in anticipation of a large turnout.
A wind farm would industrialize what is now pristine forest land, Troutville resident Bill Van Velzer said. “We’re talking about turning Botetourt County away from the attributes that have drawn people here forever,” he told the commission members.
Opposition to the project has not been as fierce as in other Southwest Virginia localities that fought wind energy development, possibly because of the spot that Apex has chosen. The 200-acre project would sit amid more than 7,000 acres of private land leased to the company in a remote area where the nearest home would be more than a mile away.
Even so, the turbines – standing higher than the tallest building in downtown Roanoke – would be easily visible for miles.
In addition to aesthetics, one of the main complaints is the noise generated by a wind farm, in particular low-frequency sounds that have been known to cause health problems, according to opponents of the project.
Under an ordinance passed by the board of supervisors last summer, sounds generated by a wind farm could be no louder than 60 decibels when heard from the nearest property line. Apex officials say their project will meet that requirement and all of the others mandated by the ordinance.
The company must also abide by 17 conditions that came with the planning commission’s recommended approval of its permit application. Among them: Strict conformance with its conceptual plan, which calls for no more than 25 turbines; limits on the hours of construction; plans to preserve vegetation and prevent erosion from storm water; and updated studies on sound and shadow flicker produced by the turbines once construction is completed.
Next for Apex will be the county board of supervisors, which will consider the company’s application at its Jan. 26 meeting. Assuming they clear all of the regulatory hurdles, Apex officials say they will start clearing land for the project by the end of this year.
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