By Stephen Smoot
Winds of discontent made their way to the Pendleton County courthouse last Tuesday for the first meeting of the Pendleton County Commission in April.
Roger Dahmer, commissioner, opened the session with the customary prayer, including “we are here to serve You by serving the people of the county.”
The commissioners agreed to allow Scott Somerville, a local lawyer, to open. He started by saying “I’m flattered and humbled to go first.” Somerville commenced his presentation by stating that he had asked a question in his previous appearance and had not received an answer. Somerville then shared that he asked “who do I go to if I want to ask about wind turbines.”
As he had in a prior meeting, Somerville explained that he had halted investment in a project due to the possibility of wind turbines appearing on Jack Mountain. He added that if he had seen wind turbines when he first viewed Pendleton County from Shenandoah Mountain, “I would not be standing here if there were windmills here.”
He also told the commission that a company called Liberty Gap Wind Force LLC had purchased easements. This means that the company had paid property owners for the right to access their land.
Somerville proposed that an ordinance be passed that would restrict construction of any structure over 200 feet. Commercial wind turbines can range from 300 to 670 feet or more.
Rick Gillespie, Pendleton County emergency services director, shared that a 200-foot restriction could present serious problems to area communications capabilities. “We’re not done with addressing the needs of communication,” he stated. “This would hurt our ability to expand and that would be added to our Quiet Zone issues.”
Carl Hevener, commission president, stated that “as far as I know, there is no application filed with the Public Service Commission.” This was later confirmed by April Mallow, Pendleton County prosecutor. She stated that her main purpose lay in advising. “Should the commission enact orders, I want to make sure they are written right.”
Mallow also informed the commission and audience that Liberty Gap Wind Force LLC was based in San Francisco. Somerville pointed out “US Wind Force is the top corporation.” Hevener confirmed “they’re the umbrella for the rest.”
This is not the first time that the turbine issue has emerged. Hevener said that he had dealt with the issue three times in his own tenure of office. In 2007, the Public Service Commission of West Virginia rejected the same company’s 2005 application to build wind turbines on Jack Mountain, mostly based on an “inadequate application and lack of proof.”
First, Liberty Gap Wind Force failed to inform the PSC about existing land uses, including recreational, historic, or otherwise. When asked about cultural impact, the company merely supplied a list of churches in the area.
Additionally, the company did not meet expectations in providing evidence about the turbines’ potential effect on the viewshed. Noise impact studies conducted by the company tested at 4,000 feet of distance, not the approximately 2,000-foot distance from Moatstown. Finally, the US Fish and Wildlife Service shared strong concerns about the possible killing of bats, particularly endangered species that use Pendleton County cave systems as their natural habitat.
Dahmer announced “let me go on record as saying I am not in favor of windmills. Wind power is not the answer. I see no value in them.”
No commissioner spoke in favor of wind turbines in Pendleton County.
Concerned citizens and local business owners also shared their concerns. Katie VanMeter, who along with her husband, owns the McCoy House and other local businesses, said, “they depreciate our property.” She explained that a single communications tower does not affect a viewshed in nearly the same way as a line of turbines.
“We support agritourism. I want to protect my investment as a company and as a private citizen.” VanMeter concluded with “I appreciate the time you took to listen to us today.”
The meeting continued with Gillespie sharing recent well water issues at the 911 center. “If their water source dies,” he said, “they’ll be in a heap of trouble.” He proposed that the commission consider a long-term goal to extend water service to the 911 center and also the Fisher Mountain complex. Gillespie stated that the problem was “not an immediate threat,” but “it’s having its issues from time to time.”
Next came a broadband update from Laura Brown, Pendleton County economic and community development director. She said that the county had received $4.8 million for broadband, “thanks to our current commission and also our last commission.” For example, Spruce Knob Seneca Rocks Telecommunications received grant funding to expand service over 81 miles to more than 400 customers.
A related grant could potentially help to create a public private partnership with Stanton, Virginia, based Lingo. She praised the assistance of attorney Josh Jarrell in helping the EDA with the draft proposal. Brown also stated that Shentel has commenced construction on the ECF project near Sugar Grove. “Rick is doing a lot of work,” she stated, “thank you guys for your continued support.”
Brown then announced that House Bill 3560, a measure designed to relieve landowners of liability if they allow tourism or other related activities on their land, was signed by Governor Jim Justice. She said that those taking advantage should follow a formal process and not rely on “gentlemen’s handshakes.”