Botetourt County’s northern neighbor is bothered by a proposed wind farm that it says will be seen and heard from across the county line.
The Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors, in a letter sent to state regulators last week, raised concerns about an industry that it says would sit just beyond its control while affecting its residents, environment and economy.
In January, Botetourt’s board of supervisors approved the wind farm after it was embraced by many county residents during a public hearing.
A smaller number of critics at the time made many of the same arguments coming now from Rockbridge: that the 550-foot tall turbines will be an eyesore, make too much noise and damage the surrounding environment.
While the Rocky Forge Wind project north of Eagle Rock “essentially sits on the county line,” residents of Rockbridge County have not had the benefit of public notices and meetings afforded to those in Botetourt, Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors Chairman John Higgins wrote in the letter.
The May 31 letter was submitted as part of a public comment session required by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, which is considering an application by Apex Clean Energy to build up to 25 giant turbines on top of North Mountain.
After taking written comments through Monday, Apex will forward them to DEQ. The Charlottesville company has already submitted reports detailing the wind farm’s effect on natural resources to DEQ, which will have 90 days to decide whether to grant the state permit.
Having won local approval from Botetourt, Apex still needs to satisfy the state’s concerns about environmental issues and the federal government’s oversight of aviation traffic before it can start construction on what could be the first commercial wind farm in Virginia.
“There is no question that Rockbridge County will be adversely impacted by the Rocky Forge project and we challenge Apex to prove otherwise,” Higgins’ letter stated.
One threat he listed is to tourism, one of the county’s strongest economic engines.
“With illuminated structures reaching up to 550 feet on the horizon, the Rocky Forge project poses a serious threat to our ability to maintain a base of visitors drawn here with the expectation of unspoiled vistas,” the letter stated.
Constructing the turbines will entail blasting and logging that could clog surrounding streams with sediment, the letter said, and their spinning blades could strike down golden eagles from the sky. Another fear is that noise from the wind farm will be not just annoying but potentially damaging to the health of nearby residents.
A special exception permit granted to Apex by the Botetourt County Board of Supervisors requires that sounds made by the turbines be no louder than 60 decibels when heard from the nearest property line. By one measure, 60 decibels is what a normal conversation sounds like from 3 feet away.
Before approving the permit, the board also reviewed a visual impact analysis prepared by Apex that reported low visibility of the turbines from many parts of Rockbridge County.
Since the DEQ public comment period began May 5, statements have been made for and against the wind farm. An official for the company, which is compiling the data, did not have a number of the comments submitted when asked on Friday.
The Roanoke chapter of the Sierra Club “continues to strongly support Apex Clean Energy’s Rocky Forge Project on North Mountain and is impressed by their consideration of environmental and community impacts,” the club said in its written statement.
Sierra Club support is conditioned on Apex taking the required steps to minimize potential harm to the environment. In its application to DEQ, the company has said it is willing to turn off its turbines during the times they are most likely to kill flying bats.
A proposed mitigation plan calls for the turbines to be curbed from dusk to dawn every year between May 15 and Nov. 15, when bats are foraging for food. But they could remain on when the wind is blowing faster than 15 mph or when the temperature drops below 38 degrees, conditions that keep bats grounded.
Eagles and other birds were not observed in large enough numbers to merit a mitigation plan, Apex wrote in an application and supporting documents that fill a binder more than four inches thick.
While environmental groups have been divided on Rocky Forge, the Sierra Club’s backing is based in large part on concerns about global warming and the need to find alternative sources of energy such as wind and solar.
Apex has said that electricity generated by its wind farm could power up to 20,000 homes, a projection that opponents say overstates the project’s actual output.
In addition to obtaining approval from DEQ and the Federal Aviation Administration, Apex still needs to find a utility or electric cooperative to purchase its power, which will be transferred onto the grid through a utility line that already runs through the remote 7,000-acre site.
Last week, Appalachian Power Co. said it has agreed to buy 120 megawatts of wind-produced electricity through a 20-year agreement with NextEra Energy Resources, which is building turbine projects in Indiana. Apex officials have declined to say whether they submitted a bid for Appalachian’s business.
Apex has said it hopes to begin construction of its wind farm by late this year and have the turbines spinning by sometime in 2017.
The month-long DEQ public comment session ends Monday. Comments can be submitted to email@example.com or to Apex Clean Energy, 310 Fourth Street N.E., Suite 200, Charlottesville, VA 22902.
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