Proposed energy plan creates windstorm of debate
The following news item reported in the Roanoke Times
The firm proposing the windmills and Highland County landowners are fighting a legal battle.
By John Cramer, 981-3140
Virginia's first proposed wind farm cleared another legal hurdle Thursday when a Highland County judge ruled for the third time this month against landowners seeking to keep the huge windmills off the county's ridgelines.
But the controversial project ran into a regulatory roadblock Friday when state officials reported they have reached an impasse with the project's developers over potential bird and bat kills and other environmental and economic impacts.
"I can say without question" that the fight is far from over, said David Bailey, an attorney for Highland County landowners who oppose the project.
Highland New Wind Development LLC is seeking state approval for the project, which still faces legal challenges.
After several months of discussions, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality reported Friday that Highland New Wind hasn't satisfied state agencies' concerns about the project's potential threats to wildlife and other natural resources.
The DEQ, which coordinates state reviews, suspended the State Corporation Commission's review of the project in March.
The DEQ said Highland New Wind hasn't provided enough information for scientists with the state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and other state agencies to conduct a thorough environmental review of the project.
The project requires permits involving wetlands, air quality, erosion, endangered species and other issues.
Highland New Wind officials dismissed the state agencies' concerns as unfounded and exaggerated except for potential bat kills, which they said should be studied after the turbines are constructed.
John Flora, an attorney for Highland New Wind, urged the SCC to streamline its review of the project because the company has presented extensive research costing hundreds of thousands of dollars by some of the country's leading scientists. He said there is no need for significant additional research.
Highland New Wind, which is owned by the McBride family, wants to build 19 wind turbines, each nearly 400 feet high, that could generate up to 39 megawatts, or enough electricity for 15,000 to 20,000 homes.
Company officials said hundreds of studies nationwide show wind turbines kill only a handful of birds each year, far less than the number killed by office windows, vehicle windshields and domestic cats. Bat kills are the only "serious" issue remaining to be studied, Flora said.
But the DEQ recommended the project not be approved until Highland New Wind submits more research, including a final site plan, viewshed analysis and environmental impact analysis.
The DEQ also wants the company to conduct bird and bat surveys for two years before and at least three years after construction; conduct flying squirrel, wetland and other natural resource surveys; consider impacts on ecotourism; and satisfy other conditions.
The DEQ said all research should be conducted in cooperation with state and federal agencies. The project's next step will be an SCC public hearing in August or September in Richmond.
Frank Maisano, an energy industry spokesman, said the McBride family remains confident the project will move forward. The start of construction, originally set for two years ago, is scheduled for next year.
On the legal front, Highland County District Court Judge Paul Sheridan ruled Thursday that the Highland County Board of Supervisors followed proper procedure when it issued a conditional-use permit to Highland New Wind last year.
The judge dismissed two more legal challenges from landowners earlier this month. Another is scheduled to go to trial in August. The issues involve the county's height ordinance, comprehensive plan and other zoning regulations.
Bailey said the cases likely will go to the Virginia Supreme Court, which would take up the issue for the first time as part of the wind energy development boom in the East.
Lucile Miller, one of the Highland landowners in the case, said the legal challenges were filed out of concerns for the ecosystem and people's scenic views and livelihoods in the rural county.
She said residents hope they can persuade state officials to approach the wind energy project cautiously and demand independent research before approving construction.