As the permitting process restarts for huge wind turbines atop a Botetourt County mountain, a survey finds public sentiment evenly split.
Of the 95 people who responded to the online survey conducted by the county’s planning and zoning department, 41 said they generally support a wind farm to be built by a renewable energy company. Another 40 opposed the idea; 14 were undecided.
The survey comes as the county considers changes to an ordinance that would govern the state’s first on-shore commercial wind farm.
Charlottesville-based Apex Clean Energy obtained a special exception permit from the board of supervisors in 2016, which allowed it to build up to 25 turbines along two ridge lines of North Mountain, north of Eagle Rock.
But the plans were delayed as Apex searched for a buyer for the approximately 75 megawatts of electricity to be generated by the turbines. Last fall, it was announced that Dominion Energy will purchase the power and then sell it to Virginia as part of a larger package of renewable energy aimed at reducing the state government’s carbon footprint.
By then, improvements in technology allowed for fewer turbines – 18 under one plan submitted to a federal agency – but at a height of up to 680 feet, Apex said. The county’s current ordinance sets the maximum height at 550 feet, about as tall as the Washington Monument.
Before Apex’s plans can move forward, the county would have to change its ordinance to allow taller turbines and then grant an amended permit to the company.
The 18-question survey, conducted in February, did not include any specific inquiries about Apex’s proposal. Instead, it sought public input on wind energy development in general, and whether the county’s oversight was sufficient.
Thirty-nine respondents said current regulations would support public safety and health; 38 said they would not. Noise from the spinning turbines was the most frequent concern, followed by shadow flicker and the risk of tower failure.
A slight majority of respondents said the ordinance as currently written fails to adequately protect the environment or wildlife. The risk of birds and bats flying into the spinning turbines was a top concern.
Asked whether the regulations protect scenic views, 55% of the respondents said they would not.
Apex plans to build the wind farm on a 7,000-acre tract that is largely isolated from homes and businesses. Computer simulations show that the turbines would not be highly visible from more populated areas such as Eagle Rock, Fincastle, and Daleville.
Agricultural, forest and industrial districts were selected as the areas most suitable for wind energy. Residential districts were listed as the least.
Slightly more than 30% of the respondents said turbines should not be allowed in any district.
The issue of wildlife protection was studied by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, which determined in 2017 that the wind farm would not pose an undue risk – with one exception.
Acknowledging that the spinning blades could strike flying bats, DEQ accepted a plan by Apex to turn the turbines off at night during the warmer parts of the year, when bats emerge from their hibernation caves and are most active.
To evaluate the wind farm’s effect on the environment, DEQ relied in large part on studies conducted by private firms at Apex’s expense.
The data showed minimal harm to birds, noting that eagles and other types of birds most threatened by the turbines were not seen in large numbers on the proposed wind farm site.
If the taller turbines are approved by the county, DEQ would then conduct a second evaluation on their impact to the environment. The Federal Aviation Administration would also consider the wind farm’s effect on passing aircraft.
In a filing with the FAA, Apex requested permission for 18 turbines. That number could increase to as many as 22, in which case the turbines would not be as tall as 680 feet, according to company spokeswoman Natasha Montague.
The county has received at least 16 calls and letters in addition to the survey. Nine of the comments were supportive, staff said, while 13 were not.
Apex says it hopes to have the wind farm in operation by the end of next year.
The Botetourt County Planning Commission was briefed on the survey at its meeting Monday night.
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