Review of the Roanoke County Planning Commission Wind Ordinance Hearing

I attended the Roanoke County Planning Commission’s hearing on zoning amendments to allow large and industrial wind turbines this past Tuesday night.  As you may have read in The Roanoke Times, the amendments were tabled for further review.

Overall, I thought the speakers on both sides were respectful, except when the crowd booed and groaned when Mark Hanson, a local wind power proponent and user who teaches classes on turbine installation at Dabeney S. Lancaster Community College (among other things), said he found the turbines graceful and attractive.  Chastised by the Planning Commission, the crowd remained largely quiet the rest of the night.

I think the folks who were there to speak against the proposed Poor Mountain Farm did themselves a disservice by ignoring repeated requests by the Commission to keep their topics to the matter at hand – the zoning ordinance amendment, which had nothing to do directly with the Poor Mountain project but rather addressed zoning issues throughout the county.  The Commissioners were clearly frustrated.

Now that the ordinance amendment has been tabled, some of the anti-Poor Mountain folks have considered this a kind of victory, including the Roanoke Tea Party.  On the contrary:  Deputy Director of Planning Philip Thompson made it clear at the beginning of the evening, with further clarification from Commissioner Martha Hooker, that there’s nothing stopping a large-scale wind project to be proposed under current regulations.  Rather, such a project would be reviewed under existing zoning ordinances for energy generation, which are actually much broader and offer much less protection for County residents.  The goal of the large wind ordinance, as Mr. Thompson said, is to offer *more* protection for citizens by promulgating regulations that specifically address the issues associated with large wind generation – noise, viewshed, etc.  The proposed ordinance seemed to do a good job of offering that protection while also allowing developers a path to initiating projects.  Delay of the ordinance accomplishes nothing other than providing less guidance to developers and the public, and more opportunity for the installation of bad projects.  It is in the public’s best interest to develop a sound zoning framework, based on science and the public good, sooner rather than later.

One of the objections that has been most recently leveled against the Poor Mountain project in specific, and wind energy (and other renewables) in general, is the issue of public subsidy.  In particular, the Roanoke Tea Party has taken a strong stand against the turbines on just this issue, though they are consistent in saying they are against subsidies for all energy generation – including oil and coal.  While I’m  sympathetic to their concerns about federal fiscal policy, nothing about that policy should have a bearing on local zoning ordinances.  It would serve the County no good to develop regulations for development projects based on federal financial issues, only only to have federal policy change in a year and render a local ordinance meaningless.  The Planning Commission will do well to ignore issues of project funding in their deliberations on project appropriateness, safety, and the public good.

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