When Charlie Asman retired, he and his wife thought Penn Forest was the perfect place to go.
In 2004, they moved to a home near a lake, surrounded by trees, where it’s so quiet they can hear the bats at night, he said.
Now Asman said he’s worried that Atlantic Wind’s proposed wind turbine project will destroy his peace and quiet and decrease the value of his home.
According to testimony from real estate appraiser Don Paul Shearer at a Penn Forest zoning hearing Thursday night, the proposed 37-turbine project could make homes within a two-mile radias worth between 20 and 40 percent less.
Shearer, best known for his writings on real estate after the accident at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plan in 1979 and his analysis on the estimated damages to Alaska after the oil spill of the Exxon Valdez Oil Tanker in 1989, testified as an expert witness.
“I could sell my house at that price and then move somewhere else – that’s a hell of a loss – but if it does what they say to the environment? Oof,” Asman, 77, said, shaking his head.
Shearer was one of two expert witnesses to testify for the Penn Forest residents against the project at the ongoing zoning hearing. Atlantic Wind, a subsidiary of Avangrid Renewables which was formerly known as Iberdrola Renewables, is seeking a special exception to the local zoning rules so it can build its wind farm on aproximately 260 acres owned by the Bethlehem Authority.
The authority, which owns the city’s water system, says the project would generate clean energy for the region and up to $100,000 in revenue yearly.
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 project would be within less than a mile of several homes.
The case has already had three nights of hearings. At this point, attorneys representing the Penn Forest residents are making the case that the project would harm the health and welfare of the people who live nearby and significantly impact the environment. Atlantic Wind previously made the case that its project fell squarely within the township’s zoning ordinances.
The residents’ team of attorney’s have previously used testimony from Pamela Dodds, an expert in hydrogeology, to show how the project could harm the environment.
Three years ago, Avangrid Renewables, then Iberdrola Renewables, an Oregon company that bills itself as the second-largest wind energy provider, signed a lease with the Bethlehem water agency for the land. The company has done testing to determine if there’s enough wind to warrant a wind farm on as many as 292 acres north and south of Hatchery Road.
If it gets zoning approval, the project would have to be approved by 14 state and federal agencies before it could move forward.
In testifying Thursday before the Zoning Hearing Board, Shearer said the value of homes in the area around the wind turbines could drop.
Several factors affect home value, Shearer said, including perceived health habits, loss of privacy, noise and aesthetic. Even if a project doesn’t actually pose health habits or excede noise levels, it can still devalue homes if buyers think it does.
“If people are acting on it, it might as well be real,” Shearer said. “And I would add, in all my years, I’ve never had anyone say, ‘Hey Mr. Realtor, do you have anything near a wind turbine?'”
At the least, Shearer said, homes could be devalued by 20 percent, meaning a $200,000 home would sell for $160,000. At worst, Shearer said, that $200,000 home would sell for 40 percent less, or $120,000.
Atlantic Wind’s defense had centered on the fact that Penn Forest zoning ordinance requires wind mills to be at least 1,575 feet from the nearest home but the company’s turbines are further away at 2,300 feet.
But local Realtor Jeff St. Clair said even some homes devaluing can affect an entire area, especially if a devalued home is the same neighborhood as another home that’s not near the wind turbines.
The logic, he said, is that if a home near a turbine sells for less, a buyer down the road will ask for a lower price as a result, even if that home is far away from the turbines.
“Once the value drops it becomes a systemic thing,” St. Clair said. “That’s what happens in neighborhoods with a lot of foreclosures.”
Later in the hearing, Richard James, a noise control engineer, said noise from the turbines would be loud enough to wake residents up at night when they’re sleeping.
James cited research from Canada and and Europe that showed wind turbines frequently exceded the accepted 45 decible level, which is about a low hum. He said the project would undoubtedly harm the health of the people who lived near them.
Debbie Shulski, Atlantic Wind’s lead attorney, said James couldn’t make inferences about people’s health since he wasn’t a medical doctor. She also pointed out to James that a study he had done about noise levels of wind turbines had been criticized by his peers for cherry picking information and skewing data.
James, who testified via telephone because of an illness, was indignant.
“I find your accusations absolutely angering,” he said.
After presenting data he had complied, James testified during his cross examination that wind speeds would affect the noise of the turbines, making them louder on some days and quieter on others.
“There will be times when they can’t be heard and there will be times, particularly at night, that the turbines would excede 45 decibles,” he said.
“So there are times the project could comply?” Shulksi said.
“C’mon,” the crowd of about 200 people shouted in response. Others told Shulski to “shut up” when she cross-examined witnesses.
Thursday’s hearing ended in the middle of Shulski’s cross-examination of James. The next hearing, scheduled for August 25 at 6 p.m., will pick up where Shulski left off.