AUSTIN – In an effort to give local and state authorities some say-so about whether giant wind farms can be built near military aviation bases in Texas, a Wichita Falls lawmaker is pushing a bill that would prevent such projects from getting a break on their property taxes.
House Bill 445 was drafted in response to a renewable energy project planned within 25 miles of Sheppard Air Force Base. But the author of the legislation, state Rep, James Frank of Wichita Falls, said it would also affect up to 15 military installations, including those near Corpus Christi, Kingsville, Abilene, El Paso and possibly San Angelo.
Without such legislation, he added, the facilities could fall victim to the Base Realignment and Closure Commission’s ax.
“The more windmills around (Sheppard), the lower the BRAC score,” said James, a three-term Republican. “This is true of our base and any flying base in the state of Texas.”
Federal guidelines currently govern the location of wind farms near military posts, but do not take economic considerations into account, Frank said. Under his bill, awaiting a vote in the House Ways and Means Committee, local governments could not provide property tax incentives to wind farms that are within 30 miles of a military base that conducts flight training missions.
The bill would not affect existing wind projects.
Frank said that although wind farms and other renewable energy initiatives are a fast-growing sector of the Texas economy, they have a long way to go before reaching he financial clout that military facilities have in the state.
With a military and civilian population of 15,000, Frank said Sheppard is the anchor of the region’s economy.
State Rep. Hugh Shine, a retired Army helicopter pilot who represents part of the area around Fort Hood, said 30 miles might not be enough space for some military posts. Some wind towers are as tall as 300 feet and their giant blades spin as fast as 200 mph, he said, which can be hazardous to low-flying aircraft like helicopters and small fixed-wing planes.
“We might need 125 miles,” Shine said, referring to Fort Hood.
State Rep. Drew Darby, a San Angelo Republican whose district includes Goodfellow Air Force Base, said it might be best if the state stayed out of the way and allowed local officials to decide the issue themselves after hearing from wind industry representatives and from the military installations that might be affected. Goodfellows would be affected by the bill only if flight training operations resume there, Darby said.
But retired Marine Corps Col. Gregory Maisel, a former aviation commander at Corpus Christi Naval Air Station who has also flown out of Kingsville NAS, cautioned against putting ground-level military officers in the middle of economic development negotiations between local elected officials and industry leaders.
Maisel said he supports Frank’s bill because it would objectively address the “safety of flight issue” for pilots in training.
Lt. Col. Matthew Manning, representing Sheppard, said wind turbines near aviation bases can cause false readings on radar screens that could be life-threatening.
“Radar is the only tool we have for separating aircraft, both military and civilian,” Manning said. “It (a turbine) obscures aircraft flying above, behind and in front of it. … It can even obscure a Boeing 747.”
A representative of the wind industry said wind farm developers are not interested in being a bad neighbor to military posts.
“If this project is not compatible, they will not build this project,” said Jeff Clark, president of the Wind Coalition, referring to the plans for a farm near Sheppard.
But, he added, it would be wrong for lawmakers to establish a blanket policy that tied not only the hands of local elected leaders, but those of property owners who could profit from viable wind projects.
The message to those property owners would be, Clark said, “the economic opportunity, compatible with the military, is not going to be afforded to you.”
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