Planners recommend letting wind data tower stay on North Mountain

BOTETOURT – The 198-foot meteorological data collection tower on North Mountain will stay up if the Botetourt Board of Supervisors follows the recommendation from the Planning Commission.

But that doesn’t mean the planners would endorse allowing wind turbines or a wind farm on the mountain that is northeast of Eagle Rock and also runs into Rockbridge County.

The planners chastised BP Wind Energy representative Mike McCoy because the company did not apply for a special exceptions permit (SEP) and a text amendment to the county zoning ordinance more than a year ago when the company put up the tower.

The meteorological pole or tower (MET) is on the remote 4,350 acres owned by the Jerry Fraley family as part of the Fraley Family Restated Irrevocable Dynasty Trust, and McCoy was before the planners Monday night for a public hearing that would correct what McCoy said was an oversight—that is applying for the SEP and a text amendment that would allow meteorological towers in Forest Conservation Use Districts with an SEP.

The planners recommended that the Board of Supervisors grant the SEP, but allow the MET to stay up only until April 10, 2012—for three years from the date it was put up.

The tower, McCoy said, is designed to collect wind data BP (British Petroleum) will use to decide if the mountain top is suitable for electricity-producing wind turbines.

While the company would like to have as many as 5 years of wind data, he said after a year, the North Mountain site is number 2 of three sites BP is pursuing for wind power.

The best site is in Tazewell County where BP already has collected data and plans to build a wind farm.

The number 3 site is in Wise County where BP already has the local zoning and permits for a proposed wind farm there.

The thought of huge windmills on the mountain prompted some neighboring property owners and others to oppose allowing the tower to stay up.

Robert Hundley, whose family owns property that joins the Fraley land, asked the planners during a public hearing on BP’s request if allowing the data-collection tower was opening the door for wind turbines on the mountain.

Planning Commission Chairman Chris Whitely answered, “I don’t know…. Whether this is voted up or down has no bearing on anything that comes after this. It is not a rubber stamp on anything else that happens up there.”
Melanie Hundley told the planners she was “not for or against anything except BP” in reference to the challenges the giant energy company has had because of the oil spill caused by the Deep Water Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

She told the planners she’s worried about BP, and wondered if it would be better if a project like this was done locally with the power used locally rather than by “some big company.”

Elden Karr, who lives on Bent Mountain in Roanoke County and has sat on that county’s Board of Zoning Appeals, urged the county to take a proactive stance and deny the SEP request because of the zoning violation.

The tower was put up in April 2009, and McCoy said when they realized they needed an SEP a year later, they notified the county and made application for the permit.

Bill VanVelzer of Troutville opposed allowing the MET and told the planners he grew up in a part of California where there are now 5,000 wind turbines.

“It started just like this,” he said, referring to the public hearing that had about 20 citizens in the audience.

He said BP has a lot of smart people and the company doesn’t make this kind of oversight—not applying for an SEP. “This constitutes a breach of trust and Botetourt County has no business going forward with this…. They broke your laws and your rules and that’s all you need to know.”

Mark Hanson favored allowing the MET to stand. “I feel wind is something we should pursue,” he told the planners. Hanson received an SEP for a height variance so he could put up small wind turbine on his property west of Fincastle. He will also be teaching a class about wind turbine engineering at Dabney S. Lancaster Community College this fall.

He said wind energy will bring jobs to the area.

McCoy took the blame for BP not applying for the SEP before erecting the tower. He called it an oversight. He also said some of the things said about BP were not applicable, and going forward, the company would provide as much information as it could about its wind energy project so there wouldn’t be a lot of misinformation circulated in the community.

The planners voted 4-0 on three different motions that allowed the MET to stay.

The first was the text amendment to allow METs in Forest Conservation Districts with an SEP.

The second was a definition for an MET, which included the word “temporary,” and the third was to recommend the supervisors grant the SEP with the condition it be down by April 10, 2012.

The supervisors will hold a public hearing on the request at 6 p.m. at their August 24 meeting at Greenfield Education and Training Center.

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