POTTSVILLE – Two distinct camps emerged following a public hearing Tuesday regarding a curative amendment to the Schuylkill County zoning ordinance.
On one side were citizens who thanked the county for addressing what they said were needed zoning ordinance improvements to protect public safety.
On the other were citizens who supported alternative energy efforts and who thought the curative amendment was heavy-handed in regard to wind turbines, but very light when addressing natural gas compressor stations and medical marijuana facilities.
The Schuylkill County commissioners are scheduled to vote on the curative amendment at their meeting at 10 a.m. today in the courthouse, which is also a continuation of Tuesday’s public hearing.
Five citizens, as well as representatives from a Waverly wind energy developer – Clean Air Generation LLC, and a county property owner – Rausch Creek Land L.P., offered public comment Tuesday to be entered into the record. Additional public comments can be heard today, according to Glenn Roth, assistant county solicitor who oversaw the hearing.
Commissioners Chairman George F. Halcovage Jr. arrived several minutes after the hearing began and was the only commissioner who attended, but did not offer any remarks.
“Had wind turbine projects gone forward under the previous ordinance, there was great potential for the county citizens to have experienced significant and deleterious effects to their health, safety and welfare,” Porter Township resident Virginia Morton, of Tower City, said.
Meanwhile, Nicholas Cohen, CAG principal, offered several objections to the amendment, from a proposed wind turbine maximum height of 400 feet, to decibel noise levels not to exceed 45 A-weighted decibels and 55 C-weighted decibels over certain times of day.
“A-weighted is the standard for wind energy projects. C-weighted is not. The fact that it was included in this amendment is a poison pill to make wind (energy projects) difficult, if not impossible, to locate anywhere in the county,” Cohen said.
The A- and C-weighted terms are differentiated by frequency ranges.
In September 2019, CAG submitted a zoning permit to the county planning and zoning commission for its Anthracite Ridge Wind Energy Project. The county rejected Anthracite Ridge’s permit application in which the company proposed up to 83 wind turbines total in the county – 40 possible in Hegins Township, which has its own township planning commission, and the remaining turbines in Frailey, Porter and Tremont townships, which are served by the county planning commission. The company has proposed turbines on approximately 12,672 acres that CAG acquired through a land lease and wind easement agreement with Rausch Creek. CAG, along with Anthracite Ridge LLC, of Wilmington, Delaware, filed a civil suit in October against the county planning and zoning commission.
Wind energy is specifically allowed under the current zoning ordinance as a permitted use, while compressor stations and medical marijuana are not currently addressed.
Morton said she wanted to speak on behalf of all of the citizens of Porter, Tremont and Frailey townships who have signed petitions, sent letters and emails, and in other ways have endorsed the county’s curative amendment.
She said the changes suggested greatly enhance the protection to public health.
“More specifically, the height, setbacks from occupied dwellings, noise control, shadow flicker and decommissioning provisions provide much needed and vastly improved provisions that were not addressed adequately in the 2010 ordinance.”
She also supported the provision protecting the military interests of Fort Indiantown Gap, and the change to “special exception use” which provides zoning hearing board oversight for any future wind energy projects.
‘Destroy way of life’
“I talked to hundreds of people in my area and they’re really concerned how this is going to destroy their way of life,” said Ralph Lucht, of Hegins.
He said property values would drop by 40% to 70%, and that proposed wind turbines on the ridge line could be a deadly distraction for motorists on Interstate 81.
“If you do this, I’m not going to rest until your political careers are done. I will go door to door in your areas to make sure that people understand what you’re doing to the public,” Lucht said.
Language ‘kills’ turbines
Three members of Schuylkill Indivisible were present, Lisa Von Ahn, co-chairwoman, and Claire Kempes, both of Pottsville, and Kris Norton, of Pine Grove.
“I hear your concerns. I have the opposite concerns,” Kempes said. “I don’t understand why we have to make this decision tomorrow (Wednesday). I’m also concerned why the commissioners would agree to condemn the process that allows the federal government to work with the military on that issue. I’m also concerned, because it sounds and feels like the language in this amendment effectively kills the use of wind turbines. That to me is a total lacking of vision when we seriously need to be looking to develop renewable energy.
“I would urge the commissioners to oppose the amendment as written and make it that we need to have regulations, but we don’t need to kill this effort,” Kempes said.
Von Ahn noted that other citizens were concerned but it was difficult for them to attend a hearing at 9 a.m. on a weekday.
‘Dislike pipeline explosions’
“I’m also concerned, in looking over the curative amendment, I noticed that there were pages of regulations for wind farms and wind turbines, but just two paragraphs for compressor stations,” Von Ahn said.
“I also wonder why it’s going to a vote so soon after this meeting and am wondering how much weight these comments have. I’d like to know if compressor stations will only be allowed in industrial commercial areas, or could they get into other areas like the proposed compressor station in Hegins’ agricultural zone?” she said.
Williams has proposed a 31,871-horsepower natural gas compressor station for Hegins Township near Bridge and Deep Creek roads as part of Transco’s Leidy South project. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission released its environmental assessment of the project on Feb. 7, which found no significant impact, and Williams plans to move forward with the project.
“I know some people don’t like wind turbines, but I dislike pipeline explosions, the disastrous effects of climate change and other environmental impacts of fossil fuels even more. I hope that these proposed regulations don’t stop the development of clean energy, but now I say I’m afraid they will in this county,” Von Ahn said.
Charlie S. Schmehl, the Bethlehem land use consultant hired by the county to draw up the amendment, said the intent is that the pipeline compressor stations will be limited to the industrial commercial district.
However, there have been some recent court cases where there have been rulings that compressor station locations can be preempted, he said. “We cannot guarantee you that they are going to be limited to the industrial district, but we can only say the county is doing its best to limit them to the industrial district. We can’t control what the courts and FERC may approve,” Schmehl, vice president of Urban Research & Development Corp., said.
Randy Gyory, a retired engineer from Orwigsburg who worked for 33 years in the natural gas industry, said he appreciated the efforts to protect county residents, but some of the amendment language was too vague.
“It says a compressor station setback is 750 feet from a dwelling and 500 feet from a residential district. It also states to ‘minimize noise beyond the property line,’ without a definition of to ‘minimize the noise.’
“When putting a regulation out, or ordinance out, you need to define some terms. That’s a very weak term. If you’re putting out 500 decibels of noise, and reduce it to 300 decibels, I have minimized the noise, but is that an acceptable decibel limit? Not at all; 60 decibels is an acceptable limit,” he said.
Gyory also questioned the legitimacy of part of the county’s ordinance. “It’s a very serious consideration to have people’s homes near a pipeline that’s operating at 800 pounds of pressure of gas, especially if there is an incident,” he said.
He doubted the county’s ordinance would supersede federal regulations already in place.
“These curative amendments are actually worthless,” he said. “It seems like a veiled attempt to basically say to the public that we’re doing something about compressor stations because of what’s happening out in Hegins. They’re not going to stop this. FERC has already approved this project. The compressor station is sited. But don’t put something into the ordinance that is basically meaningless,” Gyory said.
Cohen, and his attorney, Charles B. Haws, of Reading; Rob Feldman, Rausch Creek’s land use developer; and Rausch Creek’s attorney Gretchen Sterns offered exception to what they deemed as “exclusionary zoning.”
They addressed specific changes proposed with the curative amendment dealing with wind turbine height, noise, lighting and military compatibility with Fort Indiantown Gap.
“If we can’t either get an approval of our application under the current ordinance, we’ll have to pursue the mandamus action we currently have pending,” Haws said.
A mandamus action is a civil lawsuit to compel a public official to perform a duty he or she is required to perform.
CAG’s Anthracite Ridge Project has proposed using turbines up to 499 feet, which is higher than the 400 foot maximum height limit in the amendment.
“It’s even harder to get them at 500 feet. So, to put something 100 feet below where we can get them right now, that is in fact a ban on wind projects. You just can’t build a wind project at 400 feet,” Cohen said in regard to manufacturers’ turbine production.
The amendment also adds a military compatibility requirement that the application be provided to the senior military officer commanding Fort Indiantown Gap.
“They’re really important and are a staple of the community. We want to co-exist with them. I’d like to acknowledge there is an actual process that is run by the federal government to help mitigate some of the concerns that wind farms and the military can co-exist. It seems the amendment is putting this responsibility on the commissioners’ or the zoning hearing board’s shoulders. There’s already a process which includes the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Defense. I object to that part of it,” Cohen said. The DOD’s plan to reconcile energy development with safe and effective military operations is the Clearinghouse Process, according to Cohen and Feldman, who support the process.
Feldman said Rausch Creek initially opened discussion with the county 15 years ago regarding development of a commercial wind energy facility.
In his written comment, Feldman said the company has taken “great pains to ensure all plans would complement the county’s comprehensive plan, and comply with all duly enacted regulation.”
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