Raleigh, N.C. — A proposal headed to the Senate floor would add requirements to the lengthy permitting process for wind farms to ensure they don't conflict with the training needs of North Carolina military bases.
Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, gutted House Bill 763, which was to establish a legislative task force on regulatory reform, and replaced it with the Military Operations Protection Act of 2016, including a color-coded map marking areas used for jet and helicopter training, primarily in eastern North Carolina.
"Having a 500-foot wind turbine in the flight pattern of a jet going 1,000 mph doesn't make sense to me," Brown said.
Lawmakers three years ago set up a permitting process for wind energy sites that included getting approvals from military installations as well as the state Department of Environmental Quality, local governments and nearby property owners. Any wind farm nationwide also needs to get approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.
House Bill 763 would add approvals from the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and the Department of Health and Human Services to the process. The latter agency would examine the potential impact of noise and shadows from wind turbines in a proposed project on public health.
Secretary of Military and Veterans Affairs Cornell Wilson told lawmakers that it was imperative for his agency to be involved in the decision process on proposed wind farms, saying it's easy for the military in an age of downsizing to move aircraft to bases with fewer potential conflicts.
Brown, whose district includes Camp Lejeune and the New River Marine Corps Air Station, agreed that ensuring the viability of North Carolina's military bases is paramount for the legislature.
"It's our job – it's my job in my particular district – to try to protect these bases," he said. "If you think eastern North Carolina is poor now, just get rid of the military and see what you've got."
Several senators expressed concern that the measure could scuttle wind farms already planned for Perquimans and Tyrrell counties, worth a combined $750 million. Brown said the bill includes a provision to allow projects already in the permitting phase, but he wouldn't accede to requests to amend the proposal to include language that would cover projects that have applied for federal permits but haven't yet started the state or local application process.
"We already had a stringent process," said Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, D-Northampton. "Is that not enough? Why are we adding more red tape and permitting to the process?"
Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, R-Cabarrus, questioned whether the map showing areas where no turbines could go would violate the rights of area property owners. He noted the North Carolina Supreme Court's decision last week invalidated a 1987 law that allowed the state Department of Transportation to restrict development in corridors where it planned to build highways in the future.
An attorney for two wind energy companies also complained that the map could be changed in the future by state officials, giving the firms no certainty as to where they might be allowed to build. Brown said officials need the flexibility to adjust the map to changes in training flight patterns at bases.
The bill cleared the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources on a voice vote, although there was a vocal "no" response from several committee members.
Melissa Dickerson, coastal coordinator for the North Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club, noted in a statement after the vote that no wind farm permits have been issued under the 2013 process, yet "some Senators appear to be seeking to prevent any new wind projects in Eastern NC."
"The measure introduced today needlessly pits major clean energy investment and economic development in some of North Carolina’s rural counties against protection of the state’s current and future military interests," Dickerson said.