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County to vote on zoning for turbines

Kevin Spradlin
Cumberland Times-News

CUMBERLAND — Jamie Walsh said Allegany County officials are trying to impose strict standards on small industrial wind turbine projects — regulations that are even more limiting than larger projects that require in-depth review by a number of state agencies.

Staff on Wednesday presented during a special work session a handful of changes in an attempt to address concerns conveyed by the commissioners at last week’s public meeting. And the consensus appeared to be the commissioners favored imposing some form of the amendments to the county zoning code. The meeting was open to the public but only the commissioners and county staff were permitted to speak.

“Yeah, it seems like the train is headed that way,” said Walsh, a local attorney representing US WindForce, the company that has a proposed 25-turbine project atop Dan’s Mountain.

In a recent letter to the editor, Walsh said the zoning amendments as originally presented would be the project’s undoing. On Wednesday, Walsh said the proposed modifications didn’t appear to be much better.

The proposed modifications — to be voted on at today’s public meeting at 11 a.m. — include applicants being permitted to request a variance of minimum separation distances and setbacks. The proposals released Wednesday also would measure the height of a turbine from its base to the top of the nacelle — the cover housing of the turbine’s engine — as opposed to the highest point of the blade at its greatest extension.

County Planning Coordinator Phil Hager said last week’s tour of wind turbines in Somerset County, Pa., was enlightening but also brought to light key issues. One planning staff member heard a high-pitched whine emitted from the machines. Commissioner Jim Stakem said he didn’t hear it.

Hager said a past farming family had problems with flicker — the casting of shadows by the turbine blades as they rotate. The family currently living there has reported no issues of it, Hager said.

The problems — and their potential solutions, he said — “depends on who you talk to.”

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The proposed amendments also addressed two key issues advocated for by commissioners Stakem and Bob Hutcheson. Stakem said the amendment addressing decommissioning a unit — something that “doesn’t seem to be a problem in Somerset (County)” — “is definitely one of my biggest concerns.”

“We don’t want them up there and taxpayers to pay for them to take them down,” said Stakem, noting the wind company should be burdened with the cost of removing obsolete turbines or those in disrepair.

While the cost of removing a machine is relatively unknown, it’s also a cost that could change. The amendment addresses that possibility by requiring an evaluation of the cost of removal every five years.

Hutcheson said a groundwater protection bond also is a must. In the amendment, the Allegany County Health Department would be required to test every well within a 3-mile radius of an industrial wind turbine project. If the water is potable — and later determined to not be potable due to wind turbine construction — the wind company would be responsible for any costs associated with providing drinking water to homes and businesses in the affected area.

The bond would cover the cost of drilling a new well, if necessary, while county health department costs would be paid for through the permitting process.

“I think this answers my concern very well, very thoroughly,” Hutcheson said.

The commissioners are expected to vote to include the amendments into Code Home Rule Bill 2-09 today and vote on the bill as soon as May 21.

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