DALEVILLE – The Botetourt County Planning Commission endorsed a plan Monday for wind turbines atop North Mountain that could be as tall as a 50-story skyscraper.
However, the proposed renewable energy project faced more opposition and questions than it did four years ago, when smaller turbines were approved but never built.
A final decision rests with the Board of Supervisors, which could act as soon as its May 26 meeting.
“We need to send it on … and let the board take a hard look at it,” commission member Brandon Nicely said.
The commission recommended that the supervisors change a county ordinance that had limited the height of the turbines to 550 feet, increasing the maximum height to 680 feet.
On a second unanimous vote, the commission then recommended approval of an amended special exception permit for Apex Clean Energy, a Charlottesville company that plans to build what would be the first on-shore wind farm in Virginia.
When plans were first approved for the Rocky Forge wind farm in 2016, Apex said it would build up to 25 turbines at a maximum height of 550 feet. But the site sat largely untouched as Apex searched for a buyer of the 75 megawatts of electricity to be produced from winds sweeping over the ridge.
Last year, Dominion Energy agreed to purchase the power, which it will then sell to the state of Virginia as part of a green energy package. By then, technology had advanced to allow Apex to build fewer – but taller – turbines to meet its energy production goals.
Apex then asked the county to change its ordinance and amend the permit, restarting the county’s approval process and drawing comments such as the ones made Monday by Tenney Mudge of Rockbridge County.
“The making of a turbine is not at all green,” she said, referring to how the giant turbines mar scenic views, make noise and harm wildlife. “All the negative impact of the turbines just got a whole lot worse with the 680-foot height.”
Of 19 people who spoke either in person or by phone at the remote meeting, 11 were opposed to the higher turbines. The county also has received written comments from 23 people opposed to changing the ordinance, and 16 in support. Fifty-five people opposed and 43 supported a new permit for Apex.
To comply with social distancing brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, members of the planning commission and county staff were located in separate rooms of the Greenfield Education and Training Center. Video of the proceedings was transmitted to the center’s auditorium, where members of the public watched and made comments.
According to an independent review by a consultant, the increased turbine height is consistent with industry trends. However, the study by ANTARES Group Inc. found that the 550-foot height was not obsolete technology; more than half of the wind turbine applications filed with the Federal Aviation Administration for the first part of 2019 were for heights less than 500 feet.
Planning director Nicole Pendleton told the commission that Apex plans to build a maximum of 22 turbines, at no higher than 680 feet.
But in its application, Apex presented multiple variables, with the number of turbines reduced – from 22 to 13 – as their heights were increased. “It’s tough to nail it down at this point,” project manager Charlie Johnson said when asked by the planning commission for an exact count.
Botetourt County’s planning staff expressed concerns about the lack of specificity of Apex plans. But it proposed to the commission a draft ordinance with Apex’s request of a maximum height of 680 feet – without endorsing the concept.
But there was support from some of the speakers Monday.
“You have heard and will hear a lot of negative propaganda,” said Matt Cooper of Fincastle, who called the wind farm “a very positive step for Botetourt County.”
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