EDENTON – The Chowan County Board of Commissioners have approved a conditional use permit for the Chowan portion of the Timbermill Wind Project.
The board’s action Friday, which followed nearly eight hours of deliberations on testimony presented during a quasi-judicial hearing held over two days in late August and four days in the last week of September, is subject to formal approval of a draft order that will be prepared by the county attorney for consideration by the board on Nov. 14.
The board on Friday recessed its meeting until Nov. 14 at 5:30 p.m.
Don Giecek, senior manager of project development for Timbermill, a division of Charlottesville, Va.-based Apex Clean Energy Inc., said Friday that he was pleased with the board’s decision.
“We’ve worked hard for several years to develop the best possible project for Northeast North Carolina, and though we have many other steps before beginning construction, this vote represents a huge milestone,” Giecek said. “We appreciate the professionalism and transparency with which the county approached our application, and we thank those members of the public who took time to view the proceedings.
“When built, Timbermill Wind will produce enough safe, clean renewable energy for 60,000 homes while providing a significant economic boost for the area,” Giecek continued. “We hope to be a part of this community for decades to come.”
Apex has proposed a 300-megawatt wind energy generation facility in the Bear Swamp and Center Hill areas of Chowan and Perquimans counties.
A separate conditional use permit is required for each county, which will cover the portion of the project located in that county.
The board approved the permit with more than a dozen conditions. Among those was one intended to address the objection raised by opponents of the project that environmental studies related to the proposed project have not been made public. Henry Campen, an attorney representing Apex, proposed that one condition of the permit be that Apex would provide bird, bat and other wildlife and environmental studies to the county at the time the company submits a permit application to the state’s Department of Environmental Quality.
County Commissioner John Mitchener called that condition, which the board approved unanimously, “a step in the right direction.”
Patrick Flynn, a property owner and resident representing himself in opposition to the project, asked that the board adopt a specific number of birds killed by the wind turbines as a condition for stopping the project. But John Morrision, an attorney advising the county, said such a requirement would be beyond the scope of the county’s permit.
Another condition approved by the board was a limitation on the relocation of turbines within the project area. Commissioner Keith Nixon told his fellow commissioners he was concerned that staff could approve the relocation of turbines within the overall project area, which potentially could mean some turbines would be closer to housing developments than the current project design would indicate.
Commissioner Alex Kehayes agreed with Nixon’s concern that turbines could be relocated closer to housing.
In response to the commissioners’ concerns, Campen said Apex was willing to have the language in the permit prohibit any turbines from being relocated to parcels for which turbines are not now proposed.
As the commissioners continued to discuss the matter they settled on not allowing turbines to be relocated outside of the blue grid on the site plan submitted as part of the application unless the board of commissioners approve such a relocation.
Flynn requested even stronger language that would have prohibited any relocation of a turbine from its designated spot on the site plan without permission of the county commissioners.
But the commissioners stayed with their condition that no turbines would be relocated outside the blue grid – basically, that they would not be moved from the core project area to spots along the periphery that would be closer in some cases to occupied houses – without the commissioners’ approval.
The commissioners’ action Friday also included four “findings of fact” related to the permit.
With Kehayes casting the lone dissenting vote, the board voted 5-1 to find that the project would not materially endanger public health or safety. Kehayes’ dissent focused on the issue of turbine noise, and annoyance from such noise, as a health concern.
Kehayes pointed out that even in studies referenced by the expert witness who testified on Apex’s behalf about sound issues, there were acknowledgments that at sound levels below 50 decibels, which is less than the 55-decibel limit in the county ordinance, some residents reported annoyance related to the particular characteristics of wind turbine noise.
“From my point of view that’s a health risk,” Kehayes said.
Commissioner Greg Bonner said his understanding of the testimony presented at the hearing was that the project would not pose a health risk for those living nearby.
Also on a 5-1 vote with Kehayes dissenting, the board found that the project would not substantially injure the value of adjoining or abutting property.
Kehayes also cast the only vote against the board’s finding that the project would be in harmony with the surrounding area.
Once the project is in place, Kehayes said, the county won’t look the same and for many citizens won’t sound the same.
“I would say this is disharmonious,” Kekayes said.
Bonner countered that the project would be located in a predominantly agricultural area and that it actually will serve to preserve farmland.
Nixon agreed that the project might protect the county’s agriculture industry.
Mitchener said he believes property owners’ willingness to lease land for wind turbines points to the project being in harmony with the area.
The board also voted 5-1, with Kehayes voting against the motion, to find that the project would be in general conformity with the county’s land use plan.
Closing arguments were offered Friday by Apex and by the opponents of the project.
Bill Bryan, representing the opponents of the project, said in his closing argument that the decision would affect the future of the county for at least 20 years. If the project is approved, he said, it will affect development patterns for Edenton and Chowan County and effectively create a “development dead zone” in the part of the county near the project that will last at least 20 years.
Bryan also objected that the application was being considered without the completion of an environmental assessment that he said was almost surely going to be required for the project.
“By the time you learn of all the damage that this project will wreak on your county it will be too late,” Bryan said.
But Henry Campen, an attorney representing Apex, said the only issue before the commissioners was whether Timbermill meets the standards established in the county’s ordinance.
Campen said the evidence presented at the hearing demonstrates conclusively that Timbermill complies with all of the ordinance requirements.
Regarding the decommissioning of the facilities, Campen noted Apex would post a $7.3 million cash bond to cover decommissioning costs. The decommissioning plans contemplate safe and timely removal of the equipment at the end of the life of the project, Campen said.
Timbermill has held more than 20 community meetings in the area and opened an office in the area, Campen said.
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