By KATE ELIZABETH QUERAM
MCHENRY (Feb. 3, 2008) - Residents of Western Maryland's Garrett County pride themselves on their scenic byways and fall foliage, the whitewater rafting and skiing. Like others in the state and around the country, they are concerned about the environment and understand the need for renewable energy sources.
But a proposal to erect 400-foot tall wind turbines to generate clean electricity drew almost unanimous opposition at hearings this week from residents who, while supportive of alternative energy, would prefer not to spoil the scenic views of their state land.
The proposal, by Pennsylvania-based U.S. Wind Force seeks annual leases on roughly 400 acres of publicly-owned land for about 100 turbines.
Around 700 people attended Department of Natural Resources meetings Wednesday and Thursday nights in Garrett County and Annapolis, with only a handful speaking in favor of the turbines. The Department of Natural Resources will continue taking public comments on the proposal until March 3.
Carl Lee, a seventh-generation Garrett County resident, was among the first to speak at the McHenry hearing.
"My forefathers enjoyed the mountain views, and so have I. They ought to be preserved for my children and their children to continue to be enjoyed," Lee said. "If we allow this to happen, who knows where it's going to end? This is only the beginning."
Proposals to put wind turbines off the coast of Delaware and Maryland have generated similar concerns from residents and business owners in places like Ocean City. In Massachusetts, opponents, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr., have fought a proposed wind farm in Nantucket Sound.
In Garrett County, residents are concerned about more than just mountain views. They worry about decreased property values, the noise and "strobe light effect" from the turbines and the idea that publicly-owned land would be more or less turned over to corporations - all of which could have negative effects on tourism.
Residents also argue that other regions of Maryland, such as the Chesapeake Bay, would be better suited for the turbines.
"In order to attract people to a place like Garrett County, with all its natural beauty, you want to keep as much natural beauty as possible," said Charlie Ross, president and CEO of the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce, which voted against the proposal. "People still don't want to come to a place that's populated with a lot of artificial structures when they're looking for natural beauty."
However, Ross and many more of the speakers made sure to clarify that they don't disapprove of wind farms in general - just in their territory.
"I'm all for clean, renewable energy. I own two hybrid vehicles," said Mark Hollis, who doesn't reside in Garrett County but loves the area. "This is just the wrong place for these things. These are some of the last unspoiled spots in Maryland ? it's kind of selfish, but it's going to spoil the view."
Ron Boyer, of Grantsville, agreed. "The word 'farm' conjures up visions of pastoral beauty, a place and lifestyle that we in Garrett County are actually trying to preserve," he said. "An industrial wind facility with 100 turbines, each 420 feet tall, with support roads, transformers and transmission lines seen from approximately 45 percent of the county just doesn't fit into that bucolic image. But I'm not against wind power."
Despite the resoundingly negative input from Western Maryland residents, the state's need for renewable energy sources remains pressing.
Maryland imports 28 percent of its energy from other states, said Crissy Godfrey, manager of the state's Renewable Energy Program. The added stress of importing this energy on already crammed transmission lines could lead to rolling summer blackouts as early as 2011, Godfrey said.
Supporters of wind power pointed to these figures in their speeches, expressing frustration that none of the opponents had suggested any other answers to the problem.
"I'm dumbfounded by the lack of effort that's gone into people opposing this, including our elected officials," said William Llewellyn, who lives in Frostburg. "What better place than land owned by all of us to generate electricity for all of us?"
Other supporters of the proposal cited benefits like decreased utility bills and a cleaner, more environmentally-friendly energy program, and urged the audience to remember the bigger picture.
"This is not only about Garrett County, though," said Frank Maisano, a spokesman for a coalition of mid-Atlantic wind developers and a Maryland resident, amid heckling from the crowd in McHenry. "It is much larger. It is about Maryland, our country and the world."
Maisano said that neighboring states have implemented successful renewable energy programs and urged those present to remember that public lands belong to everyone - including those who do want to explore wind power.
At the end of his five minutes, Maisano retreated to his seat amid calls of "Where do you live?" and "Your time is up!"
For most Garrett County residents, the issue boiled down to the fact that leasing land for wind turbines would change what they consider the defining characteristic of their region - natural beauty.
"We have 193 miles of scenic byways," said Charlie Ross, who worries the visibility of the turbines could result in expulsion from the scenic byways program.
Ross understands Maryland is on the verge of a potential energy crisis. "I believe that there's a need for alternative energy sources, without question," he said.
Asked if he would still oppose the idea of wind power on, say, the Chesapeake Bay, Ross demurred.
"I wouldn't make decisions for them," he said, "just like I don't want them to make decisions for me."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.