Article

Winds of change make battlefield center of fight

A state agency has joined the fight against a wind farm in Highland County that could affect a Civil War battlefield. Developers say it's a nonissue, but longtime opponents of the wind farm say they want to preserve the area's beauty.

A state agency has joined the fight against a wind farm in Highland County that could affect a Civil War battlefield. Developers say it's a nonissue, but longtime opponents of the wind farm say they want to preserve the area's beauty.

CAMP ALLEGHENY, W.VA. -- From an alpine meadow west of Allegheny Mountain, Richard Laska gazed at a pristine landscape that has changed very little since the day Confederate soldiers defended the ridge from an onslaught by Union troops.

"If wilderness is sacred, and if American history is sacred, then there's no doubt this place is doubly sacred," Laska said.

So when ground was broken last month for a row of 400-foot-tall wind turbines along the ridge that overlooks Camp Allegheny Battlefield, it didn't just dismay Laska and other nearby property owners who have been fighting the project for years.

It also prompted a state agency to raise new questions about the wind farm's effect on a historic Civil War battlefield.

Plans call for the project -- the first of its kind in Virginia -- to convert the winds that sweep across Highland County into enough electricity to power up to 15,000 homes.

A spokesman for the developers called them "trailblazers" in the movement to bring alternative energy sources to... more [truncated due to possible copyright]  

A state agency has joined the fight against a wind farm in Highland County that could affect a Civil War battlefield. Developers say it's a nonissue, but longtime opponents of the wind farm say they want to preserve the area's beauty.

CAMP ALLEGHENY, W.VA. -- From an alpine meadow west of Allegheny Mountain, Richard Laska gazed at a pristine landscape that has changed very little since the day Confederate soldiers defended the ridge from an onslaught by Union troops.

"If wilderness is sacred, and if American history is sacred, then there's no doubt this place is doubly sacred," Laska said.

So when ground was broken last month for a row of 400-foot-tall wind turbines along the ridge that overlooks Camp Allegheny Battlefield, it didn't just dismay Laska and other nearby property owners who have been fighting the project for years.

It also prompted a state agency to raise new questions about the wind farm's effect on a historic Civil War battlefield.

Plans call for the project -- the first of its kind in Virginia -- to convert the winds that sweep across Highland County into enough electricity to power up to 15,000 homes.

A spokesman for the developers called them "trailblazers" in the movement to bring alternative energy sources to Virginia. Opponents say the trail being blazed will destroy the county's natural beauty with 19 steel turbines towering 400 feet above the ridgeline.

Highland New Wind Development recently began to build roads and clear land in preparation for the towers, which are expected to go up next year. The work comes after the developers survived more than five years of contentious public hearings, lawsuits and scrutiny by state regulators.

But the battle continues, this time over the site of a real battlefield.

In a complaint filed with the State Corporation Commission, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources is arguing that the wind farm project will be detrimental to Camp Allegheny, and that the developers have refused to take those concerns into account.

A hearing is scheduled for Wednesday in Richmond.

After listening to testimony and arguments, an SCC hearing examiner will be asked to determine whether Highland New Wind has violated an order approving the project.

SCC approval of the wind farm in 2007 was contingent on the developers working with the Department of Historic Resources to evaluate its effect on nearby historic sites.

Highland New Wind says the viewshed issues raised by the state have already been addressed by the Highland County Board of Supervisors, which granted it a conditional use permit in 2005.

Opponents hope that the battlefield issue will delay, and maybe even derail, the project.

With a decision from the SCC not expected for weeks, the winds of dissent will continue to swirl in Highland County.

Questions of proximity

Winter had taken hold of Allegheny Mountain when, in December 1861, Confederate forces occupied the summit to protect the nearby Staunton-Parkersburg Pike.

The stronghold was attacked by Union forces on Dec. 13. Fighting continued throughout the day before the Northern troops were eventually forced to retreat.

Of the nearly 300 soldiers killed, 146 were Confederates. Some were buried in gravesites that remain at the site, which is just across the Highland County line in West Virginia.

At more than 4,000 feet above sea level, Camp Allegheny was the highest military encampment of the Civil War and remains one of the least disturbed battlefields of the era, according to documents on file with the SCC.

A wind farm within eyesight "will likely have a negative impact" on the battlefield, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Department of Historic Resources director Kathleen Kilpatrick wrote in a letter to the SCC.

In a response, lawyers for Highland New Wind wrote that the department has "consistently and stubbornly demanded a comprehensive view- shed analysis."

No such analysis is required, the developers maintain, and they have no plans to conduct one.

"The reality is this is not going to have much impact on the battlefield," said Frank Maisano, a spokesman for Highland New Wind, a corporate entity formed by Henry McBride of Harrisonburg, who owns the land where the turbines will be built.

Maisano said the battlefield was never touted as a key attraction by Highland County -- until it caught the attention of wind farm opponents.

"You're getting a skewed picture of the battlefield, because all of a sudden it has become a cog in the wheel of the opponents in terms of dealing with this issue," he said.

To opponents, the position taken by Highland New Wind is just the latest example of what they see as a heavy-handed and dismissive approach.

When a few concerned residents gathered at the battlefield recently, Larry Thomas of West Virginia took GPS readings in an effort to determine just how many of the turbines will be visible from the site.

While the developers said in SCC filings that Camp Allegheny is more than 2 miles from the wind farm, opponents argue that some parts of the battlefield are a little more than a mile away.

"They have artfully manipulated both information and information sources to present the SCC with what I think is a very inaccurate depiction of reality up here," Laska said.

Boundary ambiguity

The battle over a battlefield is not the only potential wrinkle for the state's first commercial wind farm.

Just across the state line in Pocahontas County, W.Va., questions are being raised about whether one or two of the turbines are actually in West Virginia -- and thus subject to that state's regulatory authorities, which so far have played no role in the project.

On Tuesday, the Pocahontas County Commission voted to send a letter to Gov. Joe Manchin, asking him to refer the matter to a rarely used boundary commission.

If asked by the governor to get involved, the commission would likely work with a similar agency in Virginia to establish just where the state line lies in respect to the turbine, said Martin Saffer, president of the county commission,

Saffer said the developer's own site plans show at least one turbine sitting at least partially in West Virginia, as determined by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Should that part of the project fall under West Virginia's control, Pocahontas County residents would likely raise some of the same concerns as their Highland County neighbors.

"Once you build a Walmart, there goes the farm you built it on," Saffer said. "This is of that ilk of a project, taking a landscape and potentially changing it for a very, very long time."

But the spokesman for Highland New Wind said the developers are confident that the entire 220-acre project lies in Virginia.

Maisano said an independent surveyor used a method that is more detailed than the USGS data. "From what I've been told," he said, "we feel like we're on strong ground."

Growing concern

Long touted as a clean, renewable energy source, wind power is a small but rapidly growing part of the United States' electricity supply.

Wind produced about 1 percent of the country's electricity in 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. But the number of turbines built in 2007 nearly doubled the nation's wind capacity from the year before, and additional growth is expected with President Obama's emphasis on alternative energy.

And now, more than 20 years after the first wind turbines were erected in California, the technology has moved east into Appalachia.

The movement has left some residents of Highland County -- whose love of their natural environment puts them squarely in the "green" camp -- in the delicate position of embracing wind power in general while opposing it on their own mountain ridges.

"I've been an advocate of green energy for 25 years," said Tom Brody, whose Bear Mountain Farm in Highland County stands to have its scenic vistas altered by the project.

However, Brody believes that developers such as Highland New Wind are exploiting the green movement -- leading people to believe they will reduce the country's dependence on coal-fired power plants and the mountaintop removal used to feed them.

That's a fallacy, he says.

When completed, the 19-turbine project in Highland County will produce up to 39 megawatts of electricity. One megawatt is the power used by 10,000 100-watt light bulbs.

Put another way, the project will prove enough electricity to power 12,000 to 15,000 homes.

"Opponents will say, 'You're not going to replace a coal power plant with that,' " Maisano said. "But that's not the point. This is a first step for the state of Virginia.

"The trailblazers are in Highland County, and that's why they have had a target painted on their backs."

Other wind farm projects have been proposed in the counties of Wise, Tazewell, Shenandoah and Rockingham. The Highland County project will likely be the first in Virginia to go online, with construction expected to be completed by late spring or early summer.

Maisano said work on the project has not been slowed by the recent issues raised by opponents.

But some questions remain unanswered, such as who will invest in the $80 million project, and who will purchase the electricity once it goes on the market.

Another unknown is the effect the spinning blades will have on birds and bats. As part of its approval of the project, the SCC directed Highland New Wind to check below the towers regularly for carcasses of birds or bats that might have flown into blades.

Should the kill count rise too high, the turbines would have to be temporarily turned off.

A changed community

Pendleton Goodall has many fears about the mountaintop windmills that will stand four times as tall as the Mill Mountain Star over his 100-acre farm: the constant whirring noise, the flickering shadows generated by sunlight filtering through the blades, the lights at night to warn approaching aircraft.

"I'm totally screwed," Goodall said.

In 2005, after the board of supervisors voted to approve the wind farm, there were dire predictions in Highland County that people would move away and local businesses would close down.

Yet Goodall -- who says stress from the controversy caused his separation from his wife -- has no plans to walk away from the land that's been in his family for years.

There's been no mass exodus, said Carolyn Pohowsky, executive director of the Highland County Chamber of Commerce.

But the number of people expressing an interest in moving to the county is down considerably, a trend that Pohowsky attributes to the impending ridgetop development.

In the year before the project was approved, the chamber of commerce had 300 requests for relocation packages, which consist of information for potential new residents.

The following year, there were just 36 requests.

"It's been a very contentious issue in the community," Pohowsky said. "I think that for the most part, as a community, we're just tired of it all. It has just worn us out, so I think at this point there is a certain degree of ambivalence and a certain degree of acceptance.

"But there will be some who will always be very disturbed and angry by this."

Laurie Berman, president of Highlanders for Responsible Development, a citizens group formed to oppose the project, seems unfazed by the bulldozers and trucks now visible on the work site.

In a recent interview, Berman spoke of "if" the turbines are built -- not "when."

Even if the SCC sides with the developers, and even if the boundary dispute is resolved in their favor, the fight will go on, Berman said.

"I've always been hopeful," she said. "I'm just that kind of person. I'm an optimist. We've constantly been fighting for what's right and what's good, and I've always believed that the good will win out."

Brody seems a bit more resigned.

At the Bear Mountain Farm, he's let a cluster of oak and red maple trees grow up in front of a lodge that offers a sweeping vista of Tamarack Ridge, blocking the view of where the turbines are planned.

But Brody still hopes that some day, he'll be able to cut those trees down.


Source: The Roanoke Times

SEP 20 2009
http://www.windaction.org/posts/22261-winds-of-change-make-battlefield-center-of-fight
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