PENN FOREST TOWNSHIP – Wind turbines would soar hundreds of feet above a breezy, forested Pocono Mountain ridge as part of a Bethlehem Authority watershed plan that promises $100,000 each year plus the satisfaction of producing green energy.
But for residents mobilizing against the project, the turbines represent a noisy, backyard blight that would fragment an ecosystem the authority has spent decades protecting. Dozens of turbines, and roads to reach them, are proposed amid mature hardwoods that attract bald eagles, and next to a development where the homeowners association requires a permit to remove trees more than 4 inches thick.
Planting turbines, residents fret, would chase away raptors, black bears and other frequent guests of the neighborhood. Some people fear birds would be chopped down by turbine blades located not far from a migratory raptor route.
“That’s unacceptable. The Bethlehem Authority is going to profit from this. No one up here is,” said Fran Scheetz, who sold her Emmaus home and moved to Penn Forest Township in Carbon County little more than a year ago for the wooded beauty. “It’s going to destroy natural habitat and be disruptive for so many below in the development.”
Chris Mangold, who lives near the proposed turbine development, said he fears the effects of the turbines on the residents’ hearing, especially his young grandchildren who live with him.
“We’re concerned about our health and welfare, especially the young children and elderly,” said Mangold, who has consulted an attorney and is circulating a petition. “We’re worried we won’t be able to live in our homes.”
Mangold and his neighbors have found an ally in state Rep. Doyle Heffley, R-Carbon, who posted his opposition to the project on his Web page Monday. Others are circulating petitions against the project, which would come within a half-mile of several homes.
The public showdown is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. Thursday at Penn Forest Fire Company No. 1, where the township Zoning Hearing Board will decide whether the project meets the legal criteria for a special exception.
The project calls for 40 turbines across as much as 292 acres north and south of Hatchery Road. Thirty-seven turbines would be on property of the Bethlehem Authority, the financial arm of city water operations. Three other alternate turbines are proposed on the nearby property of the Lehighton Water Authority.
A subsidiary of Iberdrola Renewables, an Oregon company that bills itself as the second-largest wind energy provider, doesn’t have an agreement with Lehighton yet.
The Bethlehem agency signed a lease agreement three years ago, allowing Iberdrola to test the wind and ultimately construct the project. The lease calls for Iberdrola to pay the authority 3 percent of gross revenue or $100,000 per year, whichever is greater.
The project is part of a Bethlehem strategy to use its watershed to promote green energy initiatives while stabilizing its finances. Over the last dozen years, the authority has undertaken selective logging aimed at regenerating the forest on portions of its 23,000 acres in Monroe and Carbon counties. It also participates in the carbon-offset market. Partnering with the Nature Conservancy of Northeast Pennsylvania, the authority receives money from corporate polluters to keep carbon locked in its trees.
The Nature Conservancy has an easement on the property that allows turbines as long as certain best practices are followed, according to the authority.
Bud Cook, senior project manager for the Nature Conservancy, said he could not comment on the impact because the plan hasn’t been presented yet.
Steve Repasch, executive director of the Bethlehem Authority, said the forest fragmentation for the project would be “minimal” and the benefits far outweigh the potential negatives.
“Fighting climate change through renewable energy is far more effective in protecting our birds and animals than the continued use of fossil fuels,” Repasch said.
The proposed wind energy project could harness enough wind to power 30,000 homes a year and pump $100,000 in local taxes each year to the Jim Thorpe Area School District, said Craig Poff, director of business development at Iberdrola Renewables.
“We take the community’s concerns very seriously and will do everything within our power to mitigate impacts,” said Poff, who works out of the company’s office in Radnor, Delaware County. “Change is uncomfortable, but the wind energy project puts forth an opportunity for the community to contribute to the modernization of the energy supply.”
He said the project would meet the township requirement of less than 45 decibels, quieter than an office conversation, and would take steps to minimize the impact to wildlife.
The proposal comes as the Obama administration is proposing changes to help the wind energy industry. A proposed federal rule would allow wind energy companies to operate up to 30 years and kill up to 4,200 bald eagles – four times the current limit – a year, and golden eagles, too, if the company takes steps to minimize the impact.
Large birds of prey are attracted to the authority’s wooded Penn Forest ridges, just north of a major raptor migration route. Osprey and bald eagles nest near the reservoirs.
Residents, who enjoy daytime visitors from black bears to eagles, say they fear the disruption, citing the rattlesnakes that make their dens in the ridges. Disturbing so much soil, they argue, would send the dangerous snakes downhill toward their homes.
Others worry it would tarnish the community’s reputation for natural beauty that draws thousands of visitors each year.
“As a lifelong resident of Carbon County, I am opposed to the possibility of wind turbines tarnishing our beautiful landscape,” Heffley wrote on his website. “I understand the need for alternative energy, but building 40 windmills along our horizon, nestled within the tourism-dependent Pocono region, is not the answer.”
If zoning approval is obtained, the project must still submit local site plans and undergo reviews by state and federal agencies before construction begins as early 2017-18.
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