The emotionally charged hearings over whether wind turbines could be built on the land surrounding Bethlehem’s water supply may move from a fire hall to the more secure Carbon County Courthouse.
But the Penn Forest Township Zoning Hearing Board – not an independent hearing examiner as the applicant, Atlantic Wind, requested – will continue to preside over the case, Judge Steven R. Serfass ruled.
Serfass dismissed a legal challenge that questioned whether zoners can make a fair decision after five raucous public hearings and, among other allegations, personal attacks on social media.
Atlantic Wind, the energy company that brought the challenge, did not show that the zoners’ impartiality had been compromised in the face of “actual or perceived intimidation or threats,” Serfass said in the 11-page opinion he handed down Feb. 17.
Serfass said case law shows that the courts should only intervene in the decisions of municipal bodies in “extremely limited circumstances,” and Atlantic Wind’s case didn’t meet that benchmark.
In a footnote, the judge noted the township zoners did not object to Atlantic Wind’s request to move the hearings to the courthouse in Jim Thorpe and would entertain a written agreement if the township and Atlantic Wind can coordinate it with the county.
Atlantic Wind spokesman Craig Poff said the company will be in touch with the township shortly to scheduled those hearings.
“Our primary goal in all of this is to provide a safe hearing environment for all involved,” Poff said. “Ultimately, the judge saw some merit in that.”
Matthew Rapa, solicitor for the Zoning Hearing Board, said he expects the hearing would be scheduled within 45 days and would discuss the venue with Atlantic Wind.
He said the hearing would likely be held in the evening and that could mean fees may be associated with the hearing taking place at the courthouse. Atlantic Wind would have to petition the supervisors for the money, if it wanted the township to cover that expense.
Atlantic Wind, a subsidiary of Avangrid Renewables, is seeking a special exception to build 37 wind turbines on about 260 acres of its land north and south of Hatchery Road in Penn Forest. The Bethlehem Authority, which owns the land and has a contract with Atlantic Wind, would get about $100,000 a year from the agreement and forward its environmental goals by creating renewable energy.
But property owners in the area railed against the plan since the hearings began in April. They argued the project would decrease property values, fragment an ecologically important forest and hurt water quality. The public had packed the fire hall to capacity during the hearings, which were punctuated by “boos” and other insults directed at Atlantic Wind officials and their supporters.
Atlantic Wind had argued that all the vitriol would make it hard for any volunteer board to make a fair decision with so much ill feeling being cast by their neighbors. Company attorneys argued some of their supporters had stayed away from the hearings out of fear, and its videographer refused to attend future meetings without security.
One Facebook post prompted Audrey Wargo, the zoning chairwoman, to send an email entitled “perceived threat” and suggested state police be called, according to Atlantic Wind’s court filing.
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