ELIZABETH CITY – Over the past few months, Leary Winslow, a sod farmer in Perquimans County, has been making regular trips to neighboring Pasquotank County to see the latest additions to the Amazon Wind Farm. Rising from farms that grow corn, wheat and soybeans, Amazon’s 104 turbines are expected to start generating electricity before year’s end for the online retailer’s data centers.
Winslow’s day trips to this construction zone are not motivated by idle curiosity. He’s taking measure of the Amazon energy project out of concern over another wind farm, with much larger turbines, that has been proposed for land next to his farm and home.
As the Amazon energy project takes shape, its 492-foot-tall turbine towers are the only ones most North Carolina residents have ever seen up close, and they are shaping debate over whether Eastern North Carolina is the right place to build structures as tall as urban high-rise buildings.
“People are driving by right now and saying, ‘Wow, that is massive,’ ” Winslow said. “I can’t imagine that being near my house.”
Amazon’s project received local permits five years ago with token resistance in Perquimans and Pasquotank counties, in the northeastern part of the state. But the second industrial-scale wind farm slotted for review here is not getting a friendly reception as it prepares for its first major hurdle – a pair of county permit hearings this month in Perquimans and Chowan counties. The proposed Apex Timbermill Wind project faces organized opposition backed by legal firepower from law firms in Raleigh and Durham, and hostile state lawmakers vowing to impose state standards that are much stricter than county ordinances.
“People came to this area of the state for a purpose – they came to get away from it all,” said William Brian Jr., a Durham lawyer representing Chowan County residents fighting the Apex project.
“These are huge structures,” Brian said. “They make noise, they cast shadows, they chop up birds, and they can be seen from miles and miles around.”
Opposition to wind farms has intensified around the country in recent years as the skyscraping towers encroach on residential areas and turbine designs get bigger and taller and ever more powerful. Some who live near these energy farms in other states are complaining of headaches, dizziness, sleep disruption and general annoyance caused by whooshing blades, flickering shadows and strobing hazard lights.
The Timbermill project, under development by Charlottesville, Va.-based Apex Clean Energy, is no ordinary wind farm. At a potential 599 feet from the ground to blade tip, the Apex Timbermill would deploy the tallest turbines in the United States, extending some 40 feet higher than the current tallest, installed in Iowa earlier this year. Timbermill’s turbines would soar more than 100 feet higher into the sky than Amazon’s 492-foot turbines down the road.
Timbermill has divided local communities, prompting murmurs about who’s profiting at their neighbor’s expense and who’s jealous that others got lease offers. Several commissioners and planning officials in both counties have recused themselves from permit reviews because they, or their relatives, have signed lucrative leases to host Apex turbines on their property.
“That’s what they do – they tear families apart,” said Winslow, who was not offered a lease by Apex. “You’ve got people who’ve been friends for life who won’t even speak to each other.”
Winslow is among a group of about 30 Perquimans wind farm opponents that expects to spend well over $100,000 on expert witnesses and legal services from Raleigh’s Poyner Spruill law firm in preparation for conditional use permit hearings starting Aug. 24.
Another group in Chowan County has hired the Morningstar Law Group in Durham to prepare for conditional use permit hearings in that county starting Aug. 22. In each county, the hearings are expected to take at least four days, and it is expected that the losing side will appeal in state court.
North Carolina offers ideal conditions to spawn wind farms and wind foes alike. The state features some of the nation’s best wind energy resources along the East Coast, but the winds blow strongest in areas that are ecologically sensitive and dependent on tourism. The eastern swath of North Carolina offers a refuge for retirees fleeing urban congestion.
At the same time, many rural counties are struggling with high unemployment rates and are desperate for economic development. The Apex Timbermill wind farm could bring in more than $750,000 a year in property tax revenue for each county, and farmers leasing land for the project expect to reap more than $500,000 per turbine over 30 years.
Don Giecek, Apex’s project manager for the Timbermill wind farm, said the surrounding properties are zoned for agricultural use, which is consistent with wind turbines, and the project will reward participating land owners.
“We are paying pretty handsomely here,” Giecek said of Apex land leases. “We also pay for crop damage. And we would pay for any change in their personal property tax.”
Wind farm advocates say the opposition to the Apex Timbermill project is largely the result of renewable energy opponents spreading misinformation among anxious locals. But they also acknowledge the colossal scale of the projects is unlike anything coastal North Carolina has seen before.
“What everything boils down to is fear,” said Katharine Kollins, president of the Southeastern Wind Coalition, an industry advocacy group in Raleigh. “They see this not as a one-off development – there’s a series of them now. There’s this fear that northeastern North Carolina will end up with a thousand turbines.”
Economics a ‘no-brainer’
The Amazon and Apex Timbermill projects are similar in many ways. Amazon totals 104 turbines, Apex 105. Amazon covers 34 square miles, Apex about 26. The two projects are clustered in three contiguous counties, and in Perquimans County the two wind farms are only about 8 miles apart.
Last year, after clearing all agency approvals, the Amazon project faced an 11th-hour lawsuit by a Perquimans County couple who argued the wind farm required additional regulatory reviews. The couple lost their suit before the N.C. Office of Administrative Hearings this year. The Amazon wind farm, under construction by Portland-Ore.-based Avangrid Renewables, has about 40 turbines in various stages of construction and is on schedule to connect to the power grid by Thanksgiving to begin pre-operational testing.
State lawmakers have also stepped in, proposing bills to restrict wind farms that could interfere with military flight paths or disrupt rural living. This year about 700 residents in Chowan and some 1,000 in Perquimans signed petitions urging planning officials to increase mandatory distances between turbines and neighbors from the 1,500 feet required by county ordinance. One bill proposed a buffer of 1.5 miles, or nearly 8,000 feet, a distance that would disqualify dozens of turbine sites.
The legislation didn’t pass in this year’s short session but is expected to come up again next year.
“In my area, they just don’t want outsiders in the area,” said Perquimans resident James White. “Once they decided they didn’t want the project, they started looking up all the reasons why we shouldn’t have it – because of the flicker, the migraines, the heart attacks, the strokes, and all that stuff.”
“I think the turbines will actually add not only to the beauty but will blend in very well with our community,” said White, whose 340-acre family farm in Perquimans County is leasing land to Amazon for two turbines and two substations.
Horace Pritchard is hosting nine Amazon turbines on his 1,300-acre Perquimans farm, and estimates the turbines will take up a total of nine acres.
“I felt this was the easiest way to diversify and I could still get up every morning and farm the land,” Pritchard said.
Pritchard expects to be paid $54,000 in the first year for harvesting wind, compared to the $3,600 to $4,000 he estimates he would have made annually from farming the nine acres that will be occupied by turbines.
“The economics is a no-brainer,” said Steve Harris, a crop farmer hosting 11 Amazon turbines on 1,500 acres. “What was bad for us was some of the adjoining tracts, the property owners wouldn’t go along. It reduced our total turbines.”
Pritchard estimates that two dozen landowners rejected lease offers for the Amazon project. Apex also had rejections, including one from farmer Tommy Harrell, who owns 450 acres in Perquimans. Harrell said he turned Apex down because the contract barred him from discussing the terms with anyone, he didn’t want restrictions on adding structures on his property in the future, and he just didn’t trust the company.
Watching the Amazon farm go up has only strengthened his resolve.
“I think they’re the most unsightly things,” Harrell said. “I’m glad people have the opportunity to go over and see how atrocious they are.”
The details of the the Apex wind farm have not been finalized. Apex officials are still deciding which of five turbine models the company will install in North Carolina, which will determine the height and noise of the project. If Apex clears the commissions of Perquimans and Chowan counties, and if courts ultimately rule in the company’s favor, the Timbermill wind farm wouldn’t start generating power for at least two years.
The Apex project will also require approvals from the N.C. Utilities Commission, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, the Federal Aviation Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency. For construction to begin, Apex will have to sign a power purchase agreement with an electric utility or an industrial customer to buy the power it produces.
The regulatory reviews will cover a wide range of issues, including flight patterns of migrating birds and of military aircraft. To qualify for a county permit, Apex must demonstrate the Timbermill wind farm will not endanger public health and safety or harm the value of neighboring property. The project must be consistent with local land use plans and generally in harmony with the surrounding area.
Apex is facing particularly strong opposition in Perquimans County, where 54 turbines have been leased to Weyerhaeuser, a Washington state corporation and one of the world’s largest timber producers. Weyerhaeuser stands to reap $40 million or more from Apex over three decades for hosting 74 turbines in Perquimans and Chowan counties.
Winslow, the Perquimans sod farmer, said the two sides are producing reams of studies to back up their positions for and against wind farms, and he’s not sure whom to believe. But he said he has plenty of reason to worry, with the closest Apex turbine planned about 3,000 feet from his home and the likelihood that he’ll be able to see as many as 40 of the turbines from his 200-acre property.
“Apex is right on top of me,” Winslow said.
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