It’s Round 2 for the Penn Forest zoning board and Atlantic Wind.
The zoning hearing board began taking testimony Thursday on a new application from the company to build wind turbines in the township.
In April 2016, Atlantic Wind filed an application for a special exception permit to build up to 37 wind turbines on property belonging to the Bethlehem Water Authority.
That application currently has a deemed approval to proceed, but an appeal has been filed by several residents of the township who object to the project.
In the meantime, Atlantic Wind has filed a new application to build 28 larger wind turbines.
Atlantic Wind’s attorney Debra Shulski opened her comments by pointing out that “special exception” is a misleading term for the application.
“This is neither special, nor an exception,” she pointed out. “It is a permitted use that requires that application to show the board how they will comply with the requirements of the ordinance.”
“The trend is to go with larger rotor diameter, height and a higher output,” said Craig Poff, director of business development for Avangrid Renewables, Atlantic Wind’s parent company. “The design gives you equivalent energy with a greater output and a smaller footprint.”
The board heard testimony Thursday from Atlantic Wind’s noise expert Mark Bastasch.
Bastasch was hired to conduct an analysis on the Vestas V136-112 to determine compliance with the Penn Forest ordinance, which permits noise levels of no greater than 45 decibels.
Bastasch testified that based on the data provided by the manufacturer and taking wind speeds and directions into consideration that the turbines would not exceed the permitted noise allowance. Bastasch did say that based on his analysis that there were two homes where the level might be as high as 41 decibels and one home where it could reach 43 decibels.
One resident asked Bastasch what 45 decibels sounds like.
“It is very hard to demonstrate,” Bastasch said. “But a normal conversation at 3 feet would be about 60 decibels. The wind rushing through the trees could be 30 to 40 decibels.”
Attorney Bruce Anders, who represents the objectors, asked Bastasch if his analysis was based on meeting the ordinance as an average or as a not to exceed.
Bastasch said his calculations were the maximum level for those conditions. Bastasch did allude to the fact that when conditions change the noise level could also change, but that the operator could adjust the operation of the turbine to reduce it.
Bastasch was asked if he had ever returned to a project after it was in operation and conducted a noise study. He said that he had on two or three occasions and that the levels were equivalent to those he had predicted.
When pressed, Bastasch admitted to hearing of other cases where the noise levels exceeded the allowable level.
Poff testified that under this application Atlantic Wind is seeking to combine and subdivide two sections within the watershed property that would not include any land adjacent to the reservoir.
Poff said that the reason for the change would be to eliminate one of the theories that came up during the first round of hearings, that being that there can only be one principal use on a piece of property. Poff added that he did not concur with that argument, but that he believed that this plan would put an end to that line of thought.
Poff also testified that the new proposed turbines have a tip height of 592 feet. He pointed out that in this plan there are 130 homes within 1 mile of the closest turbine. In comparison, Poff said that Atlantic Wind’s Locust Ridge project near Mahanoy City has 2,300 homes within 1 mile of a turbine.
During his cross-examination of Poff, Anders referred to a conservation easement that Bethlehem Water Authority has on the property in question. The easement is between the water authority and the Nature Conservancy.
Anders’ argument centered on the easement referring to the principal use for the property as being the production of potable water.
Anders also questioned Poff about the operations and safety building that was in the first application but is not in the new application. The objectors had argued previously that the operations and safety building would be an additional principal use of the property.
Poff responded that the operations building will be moved off-site to an existing location. When pressed by Anders for the location, Poff refused to answer, stating that he was there to testify to the application before the board and nothing more.
Poff said the proposed wind turbine operation would cost $125 million and would generate $100,000 in taxes for the Jim Thorpe Area School District and $20,000 in taxes for Carbon County. Penn Forest Township does not have a tax rate currently and would not benefit from any additional tax revenue.
Poff will be called again at the next hearing for additional cross-examination and rebuttal. Atlantic Wind’s professional engineer will also testify at the next hearing.
The next hearing is scheduled for 6 p.m. April 4. The location is not confirmed at this time as the board would like to move the meetings back to Penn Forest No. 1 Volunteer Fire Company.