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NC wind farm restrictions with 30-mile military buffer are defeated, for now

A proposal that would severely curtail wind farm development in North Carolina failed to pass a House committee Wednesday after retired military officials condemned it as regulatory overkill that would eliminate a valuable source of income for local landowners.

Among those opposing the bill was timber grower Weyerhaeuser Corp., the largest landowner in the state that stands to reap at least $40 million over three decades for hosting 74 turbines planned by Apex Clean Energy in two counties.

But the bill’s Republican sponsor, Rep. Chris Millis, said after the losing vote that his proposal is not dead. He plans to bring it back for another vote in some form, with possible changes.

Dubbed the Responsible Wind Energy Implementation act, House Bill 470 would create among the most restrictive wind farm rules in the country. It would require that wind farms be built at least 30 miles from military installations, eliminating wide swaths of land from potential development. The distance from the nearest property boundary would depend on the height of the blades, but would typically range from 5,000 feet to 6,000 feet, considerably further than the 1,500 feet some counties require for 500-foot-tall turbines.

The legislation is one of several attempts in recent years by Republicans to restrict wind farms and protect military bases from interference. Republicans from eastern counties have repeatedly said that they fear the spread of wind farms – which can reach 600 feet into the air – will force military installations to relocate flight training and other critical missions, drying up the biggest economic engines in their regions.

“If they cannot train, they will pick up that mission and they will move it,” said Rep. John Bell IV of Goldsboro during debate at the Committee on Homeland Security, Military and Veterans Affairs. “And overnight Goldsboro and much of Eastern North Carolina will be a ghost town.”

Millis said the military’s current review system, the Department of Defense Siting Clearinghouse, is inadequate because commanding officers are under political pressure to support clean energy, regardless of the risks wind farms pose to flight paths and radar reception. His bill would require an extra layer of review from the N.C. Military Affairs Commission, created in 2013 to protect the military’s interests in the state.

Millis, a civil engineer, said a typical wind turbine reaches 500 feet into the air and is taller than almost every building in downtown Raleigh.

The first to speak out against the bill was Rep. John Szoka, a retired Army lieutenant colonel from Fayetteville, who told committee members that he was once ranked as one of the top 15 officers in the United States in the field of military operations research. Szoka, a Republican, said it is inconceivable that a wind farm could be built and allowed to operate anywhere in the country if it endangered the safety of pilots and scrambled military radar.

He said the 30-mile setback lacks basis.

“The bill, though well-intended by the sponsor, is over-regulation,” Szoka said. “It sends the message to any industry that if we have any problem we’ll regulate you out of the state.”

The legislation was also panned by Dave Belote, a retired Air Force F-16 pilot and former commander of Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. Belote was the first executive director of the DOD Siting Clearinghouse, which reviews energy installations for potential conflicts with military bases, and is now working as a consultant for Apex Clean Energy, based in Charlottesville, Va.

Apex is proposing a 105-turbine Timbermill Wind Farm in Chowan and Perquimans that would be written out of existence under HB 470. The proposed Timbermill project is expected to start applying for state permits soon as the company resolves a Perquimans County permit denial, which is under appeal and pending in court.

Belote said he knows the current review system works because as head of the DOD Siting Clearinghouse, he blocked two proposed wind farms in North Carolina from advancing. The Pantego wind project and the Hales Lake project were both proposed by Chicago-based Invenergy.

Pantego interfered with flight paths approaching the Dare County Bombing Range; it had to be relocated and later stalled, Belote said. The Hales Lake wind project was abandoned because it interfered with a Navy-operated military radar in Chesapeake, Va.

“It’s an example of how beautifully it works,” Belote said of the Siting Clearinghouse review process. “I was the person who said to the developer: ‘As you have designed it, as you have proposed it, there is no way I see us getting to yes.’ ”

Additionally, Belote said after the hearing, the 104-turbine Amazon Wind Farm in Perquimans and Pasquotank counties was scaled back from an originally proposed 150 turbines because it interfered with the same radar.

Nationally, landowners can make more than $20,000 year for hosting a turbine on a 1/2-acre, he said.

“The person hurt most by these one-size-fits-all [restrictions] is the farmer or the rancher who might save the farm by having five or six turbines,” Belote said.

The bill was defeated by a 12-6 vote.

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