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HILLSVILLE — Language meant to prohibit wind turbines in Carroll may have the unintended consequence of chilling economic development, county officials discussed while considering a draft ordinance last Wednesday.
An idea by EDP Renewables to study a wind farm on Stoots Mountain caused neighbors and other citizens some concerns, which were shared at several meetings with the Carroll Board of Supervisors.
The wind farm could have as many as 24 turbines that reach nearly 500 feet tall.
The supervisors directed county attorney Jim Cornwell to draft an ordinance to prohibit wind energy developments as a result.
READ THE PROPOSED ORDINANCE AND SEE MAPS (LINKS AT END OF STORY)
Cornwell shared with the supervisors what he came up with, as well as the concerns the proposal carries with it.
What he brought for consideration was an ordinance to regulate and prohibit tall structures on certain ridge lines in Carroll. The county attorney said he took language out of the state code for the proposal.
Virginia being a “Dillon rule” state, localities can only do what the commonwealth gives them the authority to do, Cornwell explained.
“So, basically, I just took the statute and the statutory definitions — I take no credit or blame for those — and put them into your ordinance,” he told the supervisors. “I wanted to go through them with you for a few minutes because I think you’re going to see some issues and concerns….”
One challenge involves the state’s definitions of mountain ridges and crests, Cornwell said.
A protected mountain ridge would mean “a ridge within the county as shown upon the protected mountain ridge line map with an elevation of 2,000 feet or more and an elevation of 500 feet or more above the elevation of an adjacent valley floor,” the proposal says.
The definition of a ridge or ridge line refers to “the elongated crest or series of crests at the apex or uppermost point of an intersection between two opposite slopes or sides of a mountain and includes all long within 100 feet, measured horizontally, below the elevation of any portion of such line or surface along the crest.”
The language would apply to “any building, structure or unit within a multi-unit building with a vertical height of more than 40 feet measured from the top of the natural finished grade of the crest or the natural finished grade of the high side of the slope of a ridge to the uppermost point of the building, structure or unit.”
The regulation of mountain ridge construction involves “protected mountain ridges, as defined herein, identified and designated upon the county’s protected ridgeline map shall be protected by prohibiting construction of tall buildings and structures that may obstruct the views of their crests or endanger the persons, property or natural resources of residents located in the vicinity of those protected ridgelines.”
To have a visual aid for how the proposal could apply to Carroll County, Cornwell asked Justin Barnard of the county’s GIS office to produce two maps showing possible interpretations.
The attorney requested the maps to show the parts of Carroll with an elevation of 2,000 feet or more and an elevation of 500 feet or more above an adjacent valley floor.
Cornwell pointed to the two maps standing on easels — one that highlighted eight or nine areas of the county and another that colored most areas of the county north of Cana and Lambsburg in yellow.
Since much of Carroll has mountains taller than 2,000 feet with drops to valley floors of more than 500 feet before rising again, it’s unclear how much of that would be affected
“The question becomes then ‘what is the ridge line?’” Cornwell said. “Is it just the tops? Is it everything above 2,000 feet?
“You can see the yellow would be your ridge line on which tall structures would not be allowed to be constructed,” the attorney said.
Looking at the state’s definitions for “ridge” and “crest” brings Cornwell back to the same concerns.
If a tall structure is built on one side of a ridge, there’s places it will still be visible from, even if it’s not from other directions.
“That’s a complicating factor with the topography of Carroll County,” Cornwell said. “As you can see almost all, except when we get below the mountain down in Cana, is protected mountain ridge under the broad definition that’s in the code.”
Another matter involves the definition of tall buildings or structures, the attorney continued. You don’t start measuring the building until you get to the top of the crest.
“So, conceivably, since you have to build 100 feet down below the crest…. you could still build a 40-foot building in here and it would not be a tall building because do don’t start your measurement until the top of the crest,” Cornwell said.
Left out of the ordinance are things like water and telecommunications towers and other utilities, relatively slender structures and minor features on buildings like chimneys, flagpoles or antennae.
His reading suggests that the traditional windmills used by farmers would not be covered by this ordinance either, but commercial wind turbines would be, the attorney said.
Enforcement will fall to the building inspector’s office, he continued. People who want to build on land partially protected would have to prove to county officials that the structures wouldn’t go against the ordinance.
Passing this ordinance will take careful consideration about how the ordinance and the map will fit the geographic features of Carroll.
“I think, as you can see, there are questions that the board needs to ponder, because of the topography of the county,” Cornwell said. “I think we’ve given you kind of two extremes here — it’s hard, though, using the definitions that are in the code, to come up with a middle ground.”
Would there be options for variances if a property owner wanted to put up a 100-foot-tall windmill in a protected area? Supervisor Josh Hendrick asked.
No, Cornwell answered. “If you recall, I asked you whether you wanted to prohibit them or regulate them and the answer I got was prohibit them.”
You can regulate them, Cornwell said. He also wrote drafts for Floyd County, one of which would have controlled setbacks and many other factors — these can get complicated and be more like land use controls.
It looks like this ordinance has generated a lot of uncertainty, Supervisor Tom Littrell said. “I’m also afraid that some of these things we could end up doing will have some unintended consequences for future development and economic development,” he said. “So, I think we need to move very, very carefully before we take any action.”
Chairman Sam Dickson said that county officials continue to gather information on the subject.
“We do appreciate the information we get, because this is how we make decisions — you put all the information together and you study it,” the chairman said. “Hopefully, we’ll make the right decision on what’s best for the county.”
Later, during citizen’s time at the meeting, Deanna Zimmerman of the Center for Wind Energy based at James Madison University told supervisors that her grant-funded group would be happy to set up tours of wind farms and provide other information.
Local officials have the ability to push for regulations like noise controls, setbacks, buffer zones and wind turbine decommission rules.
“It’s important to find accurate information about these things, for instance, like birds,” she said. “The average turbine, which is a 1.5 kilowatt utility scale turbine, kills about four birds a year, so your average domestic cat kills more than that.”