In rejecting a wind energy project near Bethlehem’s reservoirs, the Penn Forest Zoning Hearing Board has made a 31-page argument of technical, legal and environmental reasons on why turbines don’t belong along the wooded ridges that surround the prized Wild Creek watershed.
But a written decision, released to The Morning Call this week under a Right-to-Know request, could be moot because the applicant, Atlantic Wind, believes the board missed a legal deadline to resume the hearing.
Atlantic Wind, a subsidiary of Avangrid, placed a legal notice saying it had “deemed approval” days before the board voted May 17 to reject its application for a special exception to build the project on 250 acres north and south of Hatchery Road, also known as Reservoir Road.
Two residents, Philip C. Malitsch and Christopher Mangold, who have homes adjacent to the proposed wind farm, have since asked a judge to strike that deemed approval.
They argue the company, which had petitioned the court for an independent examiner and to move the hearings to the courthouse over safety concerns, was at fault for the delay in resuming the hearing.
They also said the facts presented at the zoning hearings don’t support the company’s argument a special exception should be approved.
The Bethlehem Authority, which owns the land where the turbines would be built, has intervened in that appeal. The turbine deal could make the authority, the financial arm of the city’s water business, $100,000 a year.
Residents in that rural residential community had packed public meetings since April 2016, arguing the project would decrease property values, fragment an ecologically important forest and hurt water quality.
The township zoners agreed in a May 17 meeting and memorialized their vote in the June 28 decision written by zoning solicitor Matthew Rapa. The order was signed by zoning board members Audrey Wargo, Patrick Walsh and Paul Fogal.
The decision says that opponents presented “compelling evidence” the project does not meet the goals of the rural residential district.
The district is aimed at conserving important natural features, such as mountainsides and creeks, thereby promoting groundwater regeneration, according to the decision.
Critics have noted the habitat fragmentation could impact 3,300 acres, creating an “edge effect” that could impact species that thrive in the cover offered deep in a forest. It also noted that Wild Creek holds the special state classification as “exceptional value” – information echoed in the written zoning decision.
Even so, the zoning decision says, the opponents had no burden to prove those impacts because Atlantic Wind also failed to prove it would meet the specific requirements for a special exception in the zoning ordinance.
Bethlehem Authority Steve Repasch said the project would not degrade the quality of the water that is piped to 116,000 residents in Bethlehem and surrounding municipalities.
The authority has argued the 250-acre project in the 12,000-acre Wild Creek watershed is much less extensive than its dam reconstruction there in 1996, and the dam project did not affect the water quality.
Repasch, argued that the forest disturbance would be small and, in the long run, help the environment because of the clean energy turbines create.
The authority has taken measures over the last decade to protect its 23,000-acre watershed that spans Monroe and Carbon counties. It includes a partnership with the Nature Conservancy .
Here are the developments the Penn Forest turbine project:
Zoners issued June 28 a written decision rejecting the the wind energy proposal.
Atlantic Wind advertised it has “deemed approval” on a legal technicality.
Two opponents appealed that “deemed approval” to Carbon County Court.
The Bethlehem Authority decided to intervene in the appeal.
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