NC court hearing for Amazon Wind Farm challenge set for Wednesday

Pasquotank County couple say the 104-turbine project is subject to a regulatory review; Wind farm backers say NC’s 2013 wind farm law exempted Amazon energy project

The future of the $400 million Amazon Wind Farm in northeastern North Carolina may hinge on the legal interpretation of “grandfather,” to be debated by lawyers Wednesday at the state’s Office of Administrative Hearings.

Already nine months into construction and on schedule for completion this fall, Amazon’s energy project will be the largest wind farm in the Southeast. It’s also an economic engine for Perquimans and Pasquotank counties, generating $520,000 a year in county taxes and more than $600,000 a year for local landowners.

Wednesday’s legal proceeding in Raleigh will focus on whether the Amazon Wind Farm is subject to a lengthy regulatory review under a 2013 state law, or whether the project is grandfathered and therefore exempted.

The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality initially concluded in March that an additional regulatory review is necessary. But after Iberdrola and local coastal officials lobbied state officials, the state agency reversed itself and sided with Iberdrola.

Subsequently, a Perquimans County couple, backed by legal support from the free-market Civitas Insitute in Raleigh, sued the Department of Environmental Quality at the Office of Administrative Courts. The couple argues that the Amazon wind farm now under construction must be reviewed again by regulators because it’s not the same project that was previously approved when it was called the Desert Wind Project.

Deadline approaches

Among the changes since the state’s 2013 wind farm law was passed: Iberdrola reduced the number of turbines from 150 to 104, and increased the blade-tip height of the remaining turbines from 486 feet to 499 feet.

“No one’s fighting about how high the turbines are,” said Civitas staff attorney Elliot Engstrom. “We’re just saying, does the height matter?”

Engstrom is representing fireman Stephen Owens and IT administrator Jillanne Badawi, who say the regulatory protections they are seeking would require public hearings and potentially lead to design changes – such as moving turbine locations – that would make the Amazon wind farm less onerous for them.

The litigating couple lives less than a mile from the position of the closest turbine, which will rise to the height of a 50-story office building. Their neighbors who are leasing land for the project will be paid $6,000 a year per turbine. Amazon Wind Farm straddles Pasquotank and Perquimans counties, covering about 34 square miles of farmland and timberland.

Iberdrola, the Spanish-based energy company building the wind farm, has warned that additional delays and potential project changes could imperil the project. The company needs to complete the project this year to qualify for a 30 percent federal tax credit that goes down in subsequent years.

Meanwhile, turbine components have arrived from foreign ports and are awaiting in storage at the Port of Wilmington and in Portsmouth Marine Terminal in Virginia. The tubular sections are scheduled to arrive on site next month for ground installation.

If all goes according to schedule, the first electron is expected to leave Amazon’s power generation station as early as this fall. The online retailing giant plans to use the electrical output from the wind farm’s planned 104 turbines to power its data center in Northern Virginia.

Iberdrola’s supporters

In an unusual twist in the North Carolina legal challenge, Iberdrola has not filed legal documents at the Office of Administrative Hearings. Civitas said in a filing the likely explanation for Iberdrola’s conspicuous silence is strategic: As long as Iberdrola is not a party in the case, the Office of Administrative Hearings can’t issue a temporary injunction and force Iberdrola to halt construction.

Iberdrola has declined comment, citing pending litigation.

However, several parties have come to Iberdrola’s defense. Pasquotank County, where 54 of the turbines are to be located, is urging the court to reject the couple’s lawsuit.

Pasquotank says the wind farm will result in the purchase of at least $30 million in construction materials and services from county residents. The county stands to receive more than $250,000 a year in tax revenue for the life of the wind farm. And the project will create eight full-time jobs paying more than $80,000 a year.

Weyerhaeuser Co. is also urging the court to reject the lawsuit. Weyerhaeuser argues that the state’s 2013 wind farm law was designed exempt wind farms, such as Amazon’s, that already had existing approvals.

The timber company owns about 2,938 acres of the 22,000 acres comprising the Amazon Wind Farm, and expects to be paid more than $275,000 per year in lease rental payments for hosting about 15 turbines, access roads and other equipment in Perquimans County.

“To require Iberdrola to go through the unnecessary and duplicative permitting requirements this late in the project would result in substantial prejudice and harm to Iberdrola,” Weyerhaeuser wrote in a filing. “The legislative intent of the Grandfather Clause was to specifically exclude the Desert Wind Project from the permitting requirements of the Wind Act.”


APR 13 2016
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