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Wind farm in Botetourt County missed deadline for approval, opponents say

After more than five years of planning, Rocky Forge Wind may have run out of time.

A citizens group opposed to putting giant turbines on top of North Mountain is asking Botetourt County to declare the wind farm project dead, citing its failure to meet a May 26 deadline for approval of site plans.

Apex Clean Energy, the company building what would be the state’s first onshore wind farm, counters that the General Assembly extended the deadline into next year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

County zoning administrator Drew Pearson will decide who is right in the latest of a series of complications for the renewable energy project.

Under an amended special exception permit granted last year by the Botetourt County Board of Supervisors – which revised an earlier, 2016 approval to allow for higher turbines sought by Apex – the Charlottesville company was given one year to obtain the county’s approval of final site plans.

That didn’t happen, an attorney for Virginians for Responsible Energy wrote in a letter to the county, requesting that it immediately stop work on reviewing the plans.

“Public resources should not be expended to advance an invalid site plan submitted under an expired permit,” attorney Evan Mayo wrote in a May 25 letter to county attorney Mike Lockaby.

Virginians for Responsible Energy is a Rockbridge County-based group that is opposed to the wind farm. In a separate action, it has filed a lawsuit challenging an approval of the project by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. A hearing is set for Aug. 20.

In a June 2 letter to the county, Apex’s attorney wrote that the May 26 deadline was clearly extended until at least July 1, 2022, by the General Assembly, which passed a law last October meant to assist landowners and businesses whose zoning applications were delayed by the pandemic.

“As in Rocky Forge’s case, such delays resulted from impacts on professional capacity, workloads and efficiencies that can affect various deadlines including site plan approval,” Ann Cosby of the Richmond law firm McGuireWoods wrote.

Apex filed an initial site plan last December, and submitted a revised version in March that responded to questions raised by county staff. The county filed written comments on the latest plan Monday, and continues to review the proposal.

“Because of the nature of this project, its complexity, and the myriad details required due to potential impacts on the environment and community, thorough reviews of the project plans by all of the agencies involved are extremely important,” Nicole Pendleton, the county’s community development director, said in a news release Monday.

A consulting firm that specializes in renewable energy projects has been hired to assist the county.

Although the pandemic has slowed the process, Apex has spent about $4.2 million to date on engineering and surveying costs and other professional services in an effort to have the site plan approved, Cosby wrote.

The wind farm – which in its latest version includes 14 turbines, each at a height of 612 feet – has been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, the DEQ and the board of supervisors.

Local site plans are the final stage of the process and must be approved before building permits are issued.

Although the project received community support and a unanimous vote from the board of supervisors when it was first approved in 2016, delays and changes to the plan over the years have eroded some of that backing.

More opponents spoke out against Apex’s request for an amended permit that allowed higher turbines last year, which eked by on a 3-2 vote.

“The board has been concerned for quite some time about the project and whether Apex would be able to meet its deadline,” Assistant County Administrator David Moorman said.

But at least for now, the county’s review of the plans is continuing. A decision on whether the deadline extension applies to the wind farm is due from the zoning administrator within 90 days.

Opponents have said that building turbines, which would be about twice as tall as the Wells Fargo tower in downtown Roanoke, along the ridgeline of North Mountain would blemish scenic views for miles. Other concerns include noise, shadow flicker and environmental harm caused by the operation.

Supporters say that Rocky Forge is in about the most isolated spot possible, and that it and other forms of renewable energy are needed to reduce the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

Utility-scale renewable energy operations do not exist in the Roanoke Valley.

Earlier plans for wind farms, including one on Bent Mountain not far from where a natural gas pipeline is now being built, have been dropped amid fierce opposition from nearby residents.

A proposal for the first commercial solar farm in the valley, next to Smith Mountain Lake, was made public last month. The developer is waiting to see how a proposed ordinance governing solar operations in Franklin County plays out before moving forward, according to county senior planner Tim Mack.

The earliest the solar farm would come before the Franklin County Planning Commission would be at its August meeting.