PENN FOREST TOWNSHIP – The question of whether a wind turbine farm can take root on pristine acreage surrounding Bethlehem’s water supply contains all the ingredients of a raucous public battle: home values, big energy and bald eagles.
The passions over those issues electrified the Penn Forest Volunteer Fire Co. No. 1 hall Thursday during a zoning hearing packed with nearly 300 opponents. Some critics hurled boos at a Sierra Club official for supporting the project and applauded verbal jabs against the wind energy company, Iberdrola Renewables.
“Sit down,” several members of the public yelled at Iberdrola attorney Debra Shulski as she argued a procedural question.
At another point, someone quipped the critics weren’t helping their cause by shouting out.
The emotions were generated by a proposal for a 37-turbine farm that would sprawl across as many as 266 acres north and south of Hatchery Road in Penn Forest Township, Carbon County. The land is owned by the Bethlehem Authority, the financial arm of the city’s water business, and would come within less than a mile of several homes.
The proposed site is in a residential district, where a turbine farm is allowed if it meets the legal benchmarks of a special exception. The Zoning Hearing Board, which began the hearing last month, continued Thursday for nearly three hours in a fire hall packed to capacity with mainly critics, some wearing “No Turbine” stickers and “Save our Homes” T-shirts.
The hearing drew people from both sides of the political aisle. State Rep. Doyle Heffley, R-Carbon, said he was sending a representative to the meeting and opposed the project, especially the effects it would have on tourism.
His Democratic challenger, Neil Makhija, said he supports alternative energy but showed up to support the turbine critics because the proposal would “change the landscape of our community,” especially in a residential section.
Outside the fire hall, a campaign staffer for U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey was handing out fliers calling for an end to “crony capitalist wind subsidies” and trying to tie his Democratic opponent, Katie McGinty, to Iberdrola.
Iberdrola, an Oregon company that bills itself as the second-largest wind energy provider in the United States, signed a lease with the Bethlehem water agency for the land. For Bethlehem, it would mean at least $100,000 a year and the benefit of knowing that it is doing its part to reduce reliance of fossil fuels.
But for critics, it would mean 525-foot turbines practically in their backyards and the fragmentation of woods that make the Poconos a must-stop for deep-pocketed tourists and birds. While the migratory raptor route is more than 6 miles away, bald eagles nest near Bethlehem’s dam in Penn Forest. The property also is home to black bears, rattlesnakes and other wildlife prized by ecologists.
Donald Miles, a Bethlehem resident and chairman of the Lehigh Valley Group of the Pennsylvania Sierra Club, told zoners he is confident the Bethlehem Authority will not let the project degrade its forest – it owns 23,000 acres in Carbon and Monroe counties. And while there will be some disturbance, alternative energy sources such as turbines will do more to help the environment than destroy it, he said.
“Those who say they do not oppose wind energy but just don’t want to see any of it here must concede that everyone else in Northeast Pennsylvania can make that same request,” he said. “If everyone does, no wind turbines will get built anywhere and climate disruption is guaranteed for our grandchildren.”
He cited several studies, including one that says turbines have no “measurable impact upon property values” and another that says the number of bird and bat deaths are fewer than those attributable to coal and natural gas power plants.
Attorney Theodore Lewis, who represents a resident who lives less than a mile from the proposed project, objected to Miles testifying.
“He acted like somehow his public comment is more important than anybody else’s here,” Lewis said.
His objection was echoed in the crowd, some complaining Miles isn’t a township resident.
The question before zoners is far more narrow than the viability of wind energy or the impact of forest fragmentation. Zoners must decide whether turbines meet the legal benchmarks for a special exception.
Attorney Bruce Anders, who represented one of the residents, said Iberdrola hadn’t presented enough evidence for zoners to make that determination. Where are the traffic studies or evidence about the safety of such a project, he asked.
“Did you hear anything that this proposed use shall be suitable for the site considering the disturbance of steep slopes? Is there any testimony about what earth disturbance there’s going to be?” Anders said. “Mature woodlands, wetlands, flood plains, springs and other important natural features – nothing whatsoever. What I’m saying to you is that they haven’t complied with your specific requirements of the zoning ordinance. They just haven’t done so…the special exception application should be denied on that ground alone.”
Much of the testimony at the hearing focused on evidence presented by Phil Malitisch, who lives less than a mile from the proposed wind farm. Malitisch, a civil engineer, raised questions as to whether the project violated zoning requirements that there be only one principle use on the property. The land, he said, already has a principal use – the generation of potable water.
“If the board were to determine that this is a second principle use of the property, then it would be in violation,” Malitisch said.
Shulski objected to the legal interpretation.
The hearing is scheduled to resume at 7 p.m. July 14 at Penn Forest Volunteer Fire Co. No. 1.
If it gets zoning approval, the project would have to be approved by 14 state and federal agencies before it could move forward.
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