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Wind farm ordinance discussed in Somerset
By NANCY L. SMITH
PRINCESS ANNE, Md. — The long-discussed wind power project in Somerset County is once again on the table of the county’s Planning Commission.
An ordinance, which would change existing development restrictions and limits, including those for height, setback and noise, was scheduled for reconsideration before the commission Tuesday, Oct, 28.
County commissioners have given the Planning Commission until Nov. 3 to recommend action on the proposed ordinance, according to Gary R. Pusey, director of the county Department of Planning and Zoning.
The wind energy project, by Pioneer Green Energy, an Austin, Texas-based developer of utility-scale renewable energy projects, would involve the construction of 25 to 50 commercial wind turbines extending nearly 600 feet into the air over the flat and overwhelmingly rural county. It has sparked strong opposition from some residents.
A public hearing on the proposal was held in early September and there have been “almost weekly meetings since then,” said Pusey. The draft ordinance could change, he says, although no specific changes have been made public by the commission.
Pusey said the Planning Commission does not have the final word. The county commission will make the final decision. He pointed out that, regardless of what the planners recommend, the county commission “can change the ordinance however they see fit.” That decision could clear the way for the development or stop it in its tracks.
Opponents of the proposed project held a forum on Oct. 16 at the Princess Anne Civic Center. Speakers challenged the project for its purported effects on health and safety, bird and bat mortality, and property values. The economics of commercial wind power was challenged.
The forum was organized by Safe for Somerset, a grass roots group represented by Tammy Truitt of Marion Station, Md., an accountant and former planning and zoning commissioner. Truitt told attendees that turbines will be sited near schools and school bus routes and that “there will be impacts on our students.” She predicted Route 413, a major route through the county, would be “littered with turbines.”
She reported that the current building height limit in the county is 400 feet. She said the county zoning commission has tried twice to eliminate the limit and, although those efforts failed, she said she believes the county commission will raise the limit.
Health effects of wind turbines were discussed by Dr. Randolph George, a retired neurosurgeon and Dr. Ryan Taylor, associate professor of biology at Salisbury University and director of the university’s bioacoustics laboratory. Both discussed sound levels generated by commercial wind turbines and their effects in humans. They noted studies which found sleep disturbances and other problems related to low-frequency sound from turbines. George said this is called “wind turbine syndrome” and the remedy is increased turbine setback.
Harvey Kagan, a professional engineer, discussed the effects of turbines on land values. He noted a 2009 study sponsored by the U. S. Department of Energy by researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that found no loss of value. He cited other studies showing losses that increased with the proximity to the turbine. The studies found losses ranging from 3 percent for homes that were 2.5 miles from a turbine to 40 percent in some areas.
Kagan proposed a property value guarantee, “an agreement between the developer and nonparticipating property owners to compensate for loss property value.” He said the county planning board has “refused to consider PVG.”
Kurt Schwartz, chair of the conservation committee of the Maryland Ornithological Society discussed studies of bird and bat deaths. He reported five bald eagles have been killed at wind power facilities, including one in Maryland. He noted there are 30 bald eagle nests within 10 miles of the proposed “wind turbine footprint,” one of which is within the footprint.
The formal program ended with a presentation by Dr. Dan Ervin, professor of finance at Salisbury University on the economic challenges of commercial wind power. He discussed the economics of wind power compared to fossil-fueled electricity generation.
He referenced Maryland’s target of generating 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2022 and noted federal subsidies for wind power are higher than those for other renewable energy sources.
Although a number of county landowners are reported to be receiving land lease payments for the future use of their land, none spoke to defend the project. The moderator of the forum was Dennis Stolte, a retired deputy director of government relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation. Stolte acted only as a facilitator and did not address the issue on behalf of agriculture or the AFBF.
Organizers said county commissioners and members of the planning and zoning commission who reportedly favor the project had been invited, but no proponents of the project spoke at the event.
It has been charged that the project’s turbines would interfere with operations at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station but no representative of the Navy or the installation spoke.
Two political candidates attended the forum. Michael A. McDermott, member of the Maryland House of Delegates representing District 38B and candidate for the District 38 State Senate seat, advised the audience to be informed before making a decision on the wind project.
He cautioned them to “make sure from the get-go to have money to take these things down,” referring to a proposed bond some participants at the forum wanted to see paid by the developer.
McDermott cautioned, “Don’t trust some companies that do this just for the tax subsidies.” He characterized wind power as “the flavor of the day” and as a “boondoggle by people not living here who are just looking for tax benefits.”
Charles Otto, member of the Maryland House of Delegates representing district 38A, attended the session. Otto is a farmer who serves on the Environmental Matters Committee; the Subcommittee on Agriculture, Agriculture Preservation and Open Space; and the Subcommittee on Natural Resources. He declined an invitation to address the group.