A Raleigh judge dismissed a legal challenge Wednesday to the Amazon Wind Farm, clearing the way for the largest wind farm in the Southeast to continue with construction along the North Carolina coast.
Administrative Law Judge Melissa Owens Lassiter of the N.C. Office of Administrative Hearings said the Amazon Wind Farm, which has been under construction for the past 11 months, is not subject to additional regulatory reviews and potentially costly delays.
The extra reviews were requested by a Perquimans County couple who live less than a mile from one of the planned wind turbines that will rise to the height of a 50-story office building when it’s installed this summer.
The 104-turbine wind farm is a private energy project commissioned by Amazon to power the online retailing giant’s data centers in Virginia. The $400-million wind farm spans an area of 34 square miles and is being built by Spanish developer Iberdrola Renewables.
At issue in the case was a 2013 North Carolina law that imposed additional regulatory hurdles for new wind farms. The law exempted wind farms under development before it was enacted, but subsequent to its passage Iberdrola made design changes to its project. Iberdrola reduced the number of turbines from 150 to 104, and increased the blade-tip height from 486 feet to 499 feet.
“Even if the language of The Wind Act and the Grandfather Clause are construed to be ambiguous,” Judge Lassiter wrote, “the purpose of the Grandfather Clause, the circumstances surrounding The Wind Act’s enactment, and the structure and language of The Wind Act show that the N.C. General Assembly intended for the Desert Wind Project to be exempt from The Wind Act, notwithstanding the minor changes to the Desert Wind Project after the May 21, 2013 effective date of The Wind Act.”
The Perquimans County couple – fireman Stephen Owens and IT administrator Jillanne Badawi – contended that the changes were not minor but constituted a new project that was not exempted by the 2013 wind siting act. They filed their suit against the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, which had concluded that the Amazon Wind Farm is exempted by the 2013 law.
Judge Lassiter agreed with DEQ’s interpretation and rejected the couple’s contentions.
“Respondent [DEQ] did not deprive Petitioners of property, did not otherwise substantially prejudice Petitioners’ rights, did not exceed its authority or jurisdiction, did not act erroneously, did not fail to use proper procedure, did not act arbitrarily or capriciously, did not act in contravention of required law or rule, and did not act erroneously.”
Iberdrola has been pouring foundations for the turbines for several months and expects to erect the first turbine in the next few weeks. The site is a staging ground with turbine sections, blades and nacelles awaiting assembly and construction.
Iberdrola insisted it could not afford to delay the project. The company is on schedule to complete the wind farm this year to qualify for a 30 percent federal tax credit that will be reduced in future years.
“We’re pleased at the outcome,” said Iberdrola spokesman Paul Copleman.
Amazon could not be reached for comment.
In their bid for tighter regulatory scrutiny, the Perquimans County couple was backed by the free-market advocacy group, Civitas Institute. The Raleigh organization typically litigates against government regulations but in this case said it was advocating for the private property rights of residents who would be affected by the wind farm.
Civitas lawyer Elliot Engstrom said he and his clients will decide whether to appeal the OAH decision by suing the Department of Environmental Quality in Superior Court in Wake County or Perquimans County.
“It’s tough to take on the government in these kinds of cases,” Engstrom said. “There’s a law that says you defer to the agency, where the agency’s reading of its rule gets a lot of deference from the courts.”
The wind farm is expected to provide an economic boost to the coastal region. The project will pay $6,000 a year for each turbine hosted by local farmers and property owners. Weyerhaeauser Co., the timber producer, stands to be paid more than $275,000 a year for hosting about 15 turbines, access roads and other equipment in Perquimans County.
Pasquotank County officials have said they’ll 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.