More than 160 attendees and presenters participated in a town hall on Wednesday during which opposition to a proposed wind turbine farm on Upper Yoder Township’s section of Laurel Ridge was the overriding publicly expressed sentiment.
Last month, the Greater Johnstown Water Authority received permission from the Cambria County courts to change the deed for the land and enter into a lease agreement with Competitive Power Ventures to possibly develop the project that could include 12 windmills.
State Rep. Frank Burns, D-East Taylor Township; Save Our Allegheny Ridges President Laura Jackson; Save Laurel Ridge member Dan Miller and others spoke against the plan during the meeting at Westmont Hilltop High School, citing concerns about environmental and economic effects.
“This is going to have long-term impact on our region, on our quality of life, on our water and on our tourism industry,” Burns said. “As an elected official, we go out and they want us to promote tourism. They want us to promote what our region has to offer. What is our competitive advantage? We have beautiful natural resources.
“And then, all of a sudden, when you want to put a windmill on those beautiful natural resources, you’re undermining the efforts that every elected official in this county has been working on for years. And that’s what I have a problem with.”
Upper Yoder Township Board of Supervisors Chairman Edward Barzeski said the “board is totally against this.”
While no specific locations for windmills have been announced, property owned by GJWA is near Laurel Ridge State Park, Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, state game lands and watershed.
“This is pristine,” Barzeski said. “The aesthetic value of this mountain top is beyond repair.
“Once you destroy the water and stuff, there’s nothing. You’ll never be able to repair it.”
“They would be located right along that Laurel Ridge State Park, game commission land,” Upper Yoder Township resident Allen Smith said. “It would have a big, big negative impact on that trail.”
The hearing with the court was legally advertised in The Tribune-Democrat, but several residents said no further effort was made to bring the possible development to their attention.
“Now, I say, ‘no more surprises.’ I’ve been shocked by them, by what they’ve done so far,” Burns said. “No more surprises. They need to go back to court, put the deed restrictions back in before we even have a conversation whether wind is beneficial or not in this area.
“Put the deed restrictions back, because if you don’t do that, if the deed restrictions don’t get restored, anything can happen on that mountain.”
Miller said the residents can “fight this with facts.”
Burns said he plans to introduce three pieces of legislation to require any commercial development on public land to be approved by voter referendum, companies that get state subsidies to use American-made steel when manufacturing windmills and properties with windmills to pay property taxes.
“Those are the three bills that I can legislatively do to prevent something like this in the future because I think we need to reform the process,” Burns said.
“We need to stop these authorities from having that much control over our public land. They were given the public trust. And, in my opinion, they violated it. Legally, they’re fine. But, in the court of public opinion, they violated the trust of the people of our county.”
Representatives from GJWA and CPV were invited to the town hall, but declined the invitations.
“I don’t want it to come across as that we’re just not showing up because we’re not showing up,” Michael Kerr, GJWA’s resident manager, said during a telephone interview.
“We weren’t notified, as the property owners, until last week about it. When it’s something like this that the public is being engaged in, I think it’s important that not only the professional staff of the water authority – being myself and the solicitor – be involved, but also our board. We have a large board there. On that type of notice, to coordinate 15 schedules to get everybody there, it’s difficult.
“But we’re more than happy to take part in any kind of political discourse.”
The water authority has advertised a committee-of-the-whole meeting to discuss a land lease agreement on Thursday, beginning at 3 p.m. at its 640 Franklin St., Johnstown, headquarters.
“We’re more than happy to hear any questions or concerns that anybody has in regards to a potential windmill project,” Kerr said. “The important thing to keep in mind is that it is only a potential right now. We’re years away from this happening if it actually is even to happen.”
GJWA officials anticipate a windmill agreement could generate $200,000 or more annually with money to be used for capital projects, such as upgrading the North Fork Dam and Dalton Run Dam.
Competitive Power Ventures sent a written statement to Burns, which he made available to audience members. In the statement, CPV offered “our deepest apologies for causing such confusion” about the process that is in its “infancy.”
The company stated it plans to conduct multiple studies and receive input from the local community, political leaders and regulators.
“At this point, we are at least 1-2 years away from reaching a decision about whether to proceed with a wind energy project on GJWA property and begin permitting,” according to the letter.
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