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An Effort To Restrict Eastern N.C Wind Farms Appears Dead In the Legislature

A windfarm near Elizabeth City
Jay Price
A 104 turbine wind farm is the largest tax payer in both Pasquotank and Perquimans counties.

The long-running debate pits supporters of wind energy against legislators who fear wind farms pose a hazard to military training.

Legislation that would have put more restrictions on new wind farms in eastern North Carolina will die in committee, according to the majority leader of the state House of Representatives.

Senate Bill 377 was an escalation of a years-long internal Republican fight over wind farms. One side has long said wind farms could threaten the future of the region's military bases, which are vital for the state and local economics.

Other Republican lawmakers have consistently countered that's not a legitimate worry.

The legislation was co-sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown. Originally, it called for a permanent ban on wind farms. That was trimmed to a three-year moratorium before the Senate approved it and sent it to the House.

There, House Majority Leader John Bell - also a Republican and long-time backer of tougher wind farm regulations - said there aren't enough votes even for that.

"I have to have a bill that can get through the House," he said in an interview. "And unfortunately, a moratorium is not going to make it through the House."

Last week, Brown testified in an unrelated court case that the wind farm bill would die in committee.

The idea of a ban or moratorium was controversial from the start. Another 18 month temporary moratorium ended six months ago.

Senator Bob Steinburg represents a district in the northeast part of the state, where wind energy companies have focused their efforts because of an abundance of open land and breeze.

"There are many of us, I would say even most of us in the House and the Senate, that are hoping this is going to be the last bill of its kind like this," Steinburg said.

Steinburg is also a Republican, but he has been vocal in his support of wind projects. Brown took the unusual step of backing Steinburg's opponent in the GOP primary last year.

Restrictions on wind farms have been proposed in the legislature almost annually for the past six years.

Steinburg said North Carolina already has some of the nation's most stringent requirements, and it's time for the repeated attempts at tougher laws to end. He said the constant legislation creates so much uncertainty that for wind energy companies it's like a moratorium even when the bills don't pass.

"They find themselves holding their breath. 'Is this going to happen? Is it not?'" he said. "How long are the developers going to continue to seek to locate here in North Carolina if they feel as though there's really going to be someone constantly opposing them?"

He said businesses of all kinds looking to invest in the state need to know regulations aren't moving targets.

A Virginia-based company called Apex Clean Energy has leased land and obtained the local permits for a wind farm in Chowan County. But it had to wait out the 18-month moratorium, then needed to see what happened with the latest bill. Meanwhile, another company pulled the plug on plans for a smaller wind farm in Tyrrell County.

"It definitely is very challenging doing business in North Carolina for us," said Cat Mosley, a spokeswoman for Apex Clean Energy.

Brown and Bell say wind farms are a threat to the military bases that underpin much of the economy in the east. Both represent districts that include bases.

They say more restrictions on wind farms would help ensure the turbines don't become an obstacle to low-level military training flights. They say if it becomes harder to train here, bases could close or be shrunk.

"The military is the second largest business in this state," said Brown. "It has a huge impact in a lot of communities in this state, including mine, and to not protect those communities and that business in those areas would be a huge mistake, I think. Because they don't have to be in North Carolina, they can go somewhere else."

Wind farms provide only a tiny fraction of the economic benefits of the military bases.

Bell said that's why he sponsored the 2013 bill that put regulations on siting wind farms, and why he thinks more restrictions would be even better.

"I just think it's all about protecting our military," he said. "Our military represents our second largest economic impact. Just in my area alone is over $800 million in economic impact."

"Anything that jeopardizes that or puts that at risk could be catastrophic to to our state," Bell said.

Steinburg, though says neither side has to lose, because wind farms aren't really a risk to the bases. A special Pentagon clearinghouse examines such projects to make sure they won't harm training, and thanks to earlier legislation, the state adds another layer of scrutiny.

Steinburg says his district needs economic development, too. In his corner of the state, where the local economy has few other options, wind farms offer a huge boost.

The one wind farm that has been built is the largest taxpayer for two county governments. And the proposed Apex wind farm in Chowan would have a similar effect there.

"We're talking about in the first couple of years of operation, probably somewhere between $850,000 and a million dollars of additional tax revenue for the county of Chowan," he said.

To put that in perspective, the entire county budget is less than $18 million.

"We could do a lot of things with that," he said. "We can even become much more competitive on teacher pay supplements, a lot of things that need to be done."

Brown, meanwhile, says he'll keep pushing for more protections for bases. So even if there aren't votes for a moratorium, there could still be more bills.

Jay Price has specialized in covering the military for nearly a decade.
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