The meteorological data collection tower (MET) BP Wind Energy put on North Mountain 16 months ago is coming down.
The Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 Tuesday evening to deny a special exceptions permit (SEP) and zoning ordinance text amendment to allow the tower to stand.
BP Wind Energy erected the tower in April 2009 to collect wind data to see if the mountaintop in northern Botetourt would be suitable for wind turbines to produce electricity.
The 198-foot tower is on a small part of almost 5,000 acres northeast of Eagle Rock that’s owned by Fraley Family Restated Irrevocable Dynasty Trust.
BP and the property owner did not apply for a SEP when it erected the tower because officials with the energy giant didn’t think they needed a permit since the MET is a temporary tower.
And that’s where part of the rub came in for some board members; although some supervisors expressed concern that approving the MET would open the door for possible state and federal regulations that would overrule county ordinances governing ridgeline development for wind energy projects.
Botetourt zoning laws require SEP approval for any structure over 40 feet tall and a building permit. The text amendment would have added MET as a use allowed by special exception permit.
By turning down BP’s request, an MET over 40 feet tall is not permitted at all. Nor are wind turbines.
The supervisors joined the Planning Commission in its concern that BP blatantly ignored the county zoning ordinance when it erected the MET without going through the permitting process; but the planners were more forgiving and had recommended the SEP and text amendment be approved with conditions.
BP officials tried to assure the supervisors that it was an oversight, and in fact, BP self-reported the violation in April of this year when it learned it needed a county permit. That’s when the company began the process of applying for the SEP and text amendment.
But Fincastle District Supervisor Donna Vaughn, whose district the MET is in, didn’t believe BP’s assertions that it was unintentional. “I find it ludicrous that it was an oversight,” she told BP officials. She wondered how the company could not think Botetourt had ordinances addressing the construction of a 198-tower when the company has dealt with dozens of other localities around the country when erecting similar towers.
She made the motion to deny the request. Only Buchanan District Supervisor Terry Austin voted against the motion.
“I don’t believe it was an act of just snubbing the county. Afterward (learning they were in violation), they came forward to the county. A little irresponsible, by all means,” Austin said.
Austin saw no harm in allowing BP to collect the wind data. Several times, as board chairman, he told those in the audience that the issue before the board was about the MET and not wind turbines. “What we do (about possible wind turbines) at a later date is another matter.”
Blue Ridge District Supervisor and Amsterdam District Supervisor Steve Clinton both told BP representative Hank Seltzer that the company was hurt by not having the project director Mike McCoy at the board’s public hearing.
McCoy took responsibility for not applying for the SEP in 2009 when he appeared before the Planning Commission earlier in August. Seltzer said McCoy was at a county meeting in Pennsylvania about a wind energy project there.
Clinton and Martin were both swayed by Valley District Supervisor Don Assaid’s concern that the county could lose control of ridgelines because of proposals at the state level that would allow energy companies to erect wind turbines or wind farms through what’s known as Permit By Rule (PBR).
“There’s only one reason for that MET and that’s to put up wind turbines,” Assaid said as he referenced an article in The Roanoke Times that same day about the Virginia General Assembly considering PBR. He said PBR would mean big energy companies could totally bypass local zoning controls.
“If we approve this (MET), we’re giving tacit approval to build wind turbines” if PBR is approved by the state, he added. “I’m not in favor of this project.”
Clinton said he came into the meeting with the idea that the county shouldn’t punish BP for the oversight in not applying for the SEP to begin with, and that there was no problem in allowing the company to collect the wind data.
He also addressed some of the public’s concern about letting a multi-national energy giant into the county. “I don’t think we can say, ‘BP, you’re not allowed in the county,’” he said.
But, he said, PBR changes the whole picture. “We could lose control.”
Austin said he’s seen the General Assembly consider similar proposals as the PBR and they go nowhere, so he didn’t believe the county would lose its zoning control powers.
During questioning by the supervisors, Seltzer said BP had looked at other mountaintop sites in Botetourt for possible study, but the Fraley property was the only one BP has a contract on.
Most of the other mountaintop property in that part of the county is owned by land investment companies or is national forest land.
Jerry Fraley, a trustee for the family land trust that owns the property, said he had also talked with AEP about producing wind energy on North Mountain.
During the public hearing, two county residents spoke in favor of allowing the MET to stand.
Jim Fain of Fincastle said he was a proponent of property rights and those who spoke against the MET did not own the land. He also noted wind turbines could generate local taxes said, “Surely, they could not hurt the air quality of the world.”
Neighbors to the Fraley property opposed the SEP.
Robert Hundley of Eagle Rock said a company as large as BP could “override a local government.”
Melissa Hundley said the company broke the law and should have to take down the MET. She also said the county has spent considerable resources promoting tourism, the Upper James River Water Trail and the James River’s Scenic River status. She said that investment would be affected by wind turbines on the nearby mountain.
Bill VanVelzer of Troutville recalled how property near his parents’ home in California went from farmland to wind farms.
He said it started the same way in 1980. ‘My mom kept detailed notes and this is exactly what happened in California…. First, the MET was up for a year… They came late for permits and they got them.”
“Unless we act now as a county to stop this and send a clear message to the others (wind energy companies), the others are coming,” he said, “and local governments will lose control.”
According to County Attorney Elizabeth Dillon, the property owners have to wait 12 months to apply again for a SEP and text amendment.