by Gene Marrano
After hearing from dozens of speakers on both sides of the issue, the Roanoke County Planning Commission decided to punt on Tuesday night, not voting on whether to recommend an ordinance that could make it easier to build large-turbine wind farms. Instead the Planning Commission will further study issues raised at the public hearing, such as the adverse health effects of whirling turbine blades.
It could have voted on the ordinance, which dictates setbacks from surrounding properties and decibel limits, and then sent it to the Board of Supervisors for a vote. Although the proposed ordinance would apply to the entire county, those who showed up to speak at the hearing were basically split into two camps: those who live in the Bent Mountain community and are opposed to a proposal by Invenergy Corp, a Chicago-based firm that wants to erect about eighteen 440’ tall wind turbine towers on Poor Mountain and those that live elsewhere in the valley and support the project because of its “green” aspects as a source of clean, renewable energy.
Invenergy has leased several thousand acres on Poor Mountain where it could build the wind farm, but it must wait for ordinances and special permitting from Roanoke County – and for clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration after it determines whether or not the cluster of towers would represent a flight hazard.
Planning Commission chairman David Radford tried to steer the comments away from a dialogue on Poor Mountain alone. “Let’s talk about the ordinance we have in front of us tonight,” said the Windsor Hills representative, “[since] this encompasses the entire county.” The Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors did set ordinances in place for small-turbine wind farms recently, the type of systems someone might set up on their roof or in a back yard.
“We moved here for the peace and beauty,” retired teacher Sue Karr told the Planning Commission. She also had a challenge for the panel: “Look for any community that enjoys living next to windmills.” Kenley Smith, a Bent Mountain resident and the creator of Studio Roanoke downtown, said the Planning Commission must protect one of the valley’s most precious assets, the “viewshed” on its ridges and mountaintops.
Commercial pilot Gordon Ewald asked the panel to consider air traffic safety, which he said would be compromised by a group of 443’ towers on Poor Mountain. “[Zoning] requires the commission to protect approach slopes,” said Ewald. He noted that newly elected Congressman Morgan Griffith recently wrote to the FAA commissioner, expressing his concern for air traffic safety issues related to the proposed turbines.
Blue Ridge Parkway landscape planner Gary Johnson came up from the Asheville office to speak for three minutes, telling the Planning Commission that visitors to the Blue Ridge Parkway come for the views. “Let’s have some more discussion [about the ordinance],” beseeched Johnson.
Several speakers questioned the cost of the Poor Mountain project, perhaps $100 million, most of which will be paid for with the help of federal incentive funds. “Is this project feasible without government subsidies?” asked Elliott Wheeler. Meanwhile Roanoke Tea Party spokesman Chip Tarbutton injected politics into the procedure, calling the Invenergy proposal a “boondoggle” that will ultimately cost taxpayers big money.
Bob Johnson of Fincastle supports the windmill project, which would generate electricity to be sold back to Appalachian Power. Johnson noted that AEP already uses some wind power – and investment paid for in part by all of its customers. “Make a business friendly decision,” he implored.
Engineer Mark Hanson, who uses wind and solar at his Fincastle home, rebutted earlier speakers, stating that whirling turbine blades “will not” affect radio frequencies or flight patterns at Roanoke Regional Airport. As for seeing them on top of Poor Mountain, already home to a host of communications towers, “I would love to gaze at these majestic beauties in my viewshed,” said Hanson. “Support clean, green energy,” he asked the commission.
Michael Scott questioned the wisdom of setting a 60 decibel noise limit for the turbines, wondering about the studies behind a number he said was too high. Others said the frequencies generated by large turbines could cause headaches, vomiting and other physical ailments. The large turbine industry said Karen Scott, was “preying on the ignorance of Roanoke County government.”
Roanoker Jeff Maiden, who lived in a cabin on Bent Mountain for 15 years, played a recording of large turbines that he said was made 1500 feet from the tower. Amplified through the meeting room’s sound system, a high pitched, constant screeching sound could be heard.
Diana Christopulus, from the Roanoke Valley Cool Cities Coalition, endorsed the ordinance under consideration, which would still require special use permits for each particular wind farm proposed in Roanoke County. “This is a good ordinance,” said Christopulus, urging the Planning Commission “to complete this lengthy process.” That will apparently have to wait until after the work session and another public meeting.