A state legislator wants projects like Bethlehem’s turbine proposal in the Poconos to face the winds of public opinion.
The Bethlehem Authority, which owns 23,000 acres around the city’s water supply in Carbon and Monroe counties, would be required to let voters in the municipality in which such a project is proposed decide whether it should be allowed. If they say no, the project could not be voted upon for five years.
State Rep. Doyle Heffley, R-Lehighton, whose district includes that part of the watershed, is proposing the change. He also would require the authority to pay taxes on its entire property if any portion of it is used for commercial development.
“Residents and businesses within Penn Forest and Towamensing townships, who would be impacted first-hand by the proposed construction of 40 windmills should have a say in this process,” Heffley said in a statement. “These amendments are designed to give them a voice in the process while also ensuring fairness for those who own property in the township.”
The proposed changes targets the Bethlehem Authority, he said.
The legislation is written to target an authority in a third-class, home-rule county that owns land in a sixth-class county for the purposes of watershed management. Northampton County, where most of Bethlehem is located, is a third-class, home-rule county and Carbon County, where the turbines are proposed, is a sixth-class county.
Bethlehem Authority has proposed a 37-turbine wind energy farm on about 260 acres north and south of Hatchery Road in in Penn Forest Township. The proposal led to contentious and crowded Zoning Hearing Board meetings at a local fire hall and there’s a legal challenge to the project pending in Carbon County Court.
The Bethlehem Authority opposes Heffley’s proposal, Executive Director Steve Repasch said, and does not think it will become law.
Repasch expects the authority would be paying taxes for the portion of the land developed commercially under current law. For the turbine project, that would total 262 acres. The watershed protects the water supply for 35,000 customers in Bethlehem and portions of 10 municipalities in Lehigh and Northampton counties as part of a $21.3 million annual municipal water operation.
The city pays Carbon and Monroe counties $20,375 annually in lieu of property taxes, which the agency is not required to pay as a municipal authority.
The Pennsylvania Municipal Authorities Association also opposes the legislation, and said leasing land to benefit the finances of an authority is “not uncommon.” Many authorities offset the cost of electricity, one of their largest operating expenses, by using new technology – including green energy – and pass those savings to their customers, said Jennifer Case, government relations liaison for the association.
Government agencies are afforded sometimes unpopular powers, such as eminent domain, as a tool to serve “the greater good,” and a referendum would have “far-reaching consequences beyond the issue at hand,” she said.
Heffley’s proposal, which would amend a larger bill about municipal authorities, is in the House Consumer Affairs Committee.
Penn Forest zoners turned down the proposal last year, days after Atlantic Wind, the private company the authority had hired for the project, asserted that the township missed a legal deadline to make the decision. Atlantic Wind advertised that the project had “deemed approval” because of that legal technicality.
Two residents have appealed the project to Carbon County Court.
Property owners in Carbon County have railed against the turbine proposal since the hearings began in April 2016, arguing it would decrease property values, hurt tourism, fragment an ecologically important forest and degrade the water quality.
The Bethlehem Authority disagrees that water quality would be hurt and has argued the project would, overall, benefit the environment.
The Bethlehem Authority would get about $100,000 a year from the agreement with Atlantic Wind, a subsidiary of Avangrid Renewables, and advance its environmental goals by creating renewable energy. It’s part of several green-energy programs the authority has explored over the last decade. The authority also has a logging land management program and has explored a solar energy project on land it owns in Lehigh Township.
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding