By ANATH HARTMANN
WASHINGTON (Oct. 15, 2008)—Garrett County Commissioners have opened the door to wind turbines on Allegheny Mountain ridge tops—and they're getting slammed by local residents for it.
County commissioners Fred Holliday, Dennis Glotfelty and Ernest Gregg earlier this month approved a land-use plan that allows wind turbines to be built on the county's ridge tops. The approval comes despite pleas from many residents to keep the ridges turbine-free in an effort to leave wildlife and a tourist-drawing mountain vista undisturbed.
The commission said it will lobby the General Assembly to approve buffer zones of land between any future wind turbines and homes.
Maryland doesn't have any wind turbines, while nearby states Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York all boast multiple wind farms.
The commission declined to protect the ridge tops, as some residents demanded, citing personal property rights.
"The main thing is property rights—people here will tell you they want to do whatever they want with their property and they don't want anybody telling them they can't," Holliday said.
Concern over the ridge tops is nothing new. In February, the Department of Natural Resources held two public meetings in response to a proposal by Wexford, Pa.-based U.S. Wind Force to build approximately 100, 400-foot-high wind turbines on public land. Each turbine of that size generates, on average, enough electricity to power about 500 homes per year.
Though Gov. Martin O'Malley rejected the proposal in April following public outcry, he said he was not opposed to bringing wind power to Maryland, and turbines could still arrive on federal, state or private land in the future.
Some Garrett County residents with environmental concerns said they were counting on the commissioners to protect the ridge tops.
"Wildlife, from our perspective, is certainly a critical factor," said Grantsville resident Ron Boyer. "With global warming there will be migration of species north. When you fragment the forests with turbines, you are fragmenting the populations also."
Boyer, who said he was concerned about the low-grade humming noise wind turbines make, said the natural beauty of the mountaintops in Western Maryland is a major tourist draw and that if they become dotted with windmills "there will certainly be an (economic) impact."
Other county dwellers who had wanted the ridge-top protected from turbines cited dangers to animals from windmills.
"It's been documented that wind farms in West Virginia and Pennsylvania have killed thousands of bats," said J. Edward Gates, a Garrett County resident and an associate professor of environmental science at University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science's Appalachian Laboratory in Frostburg. "Research done recently has shown that the passage of the blades creates almost like a vacuum effect and the bats experience decompression, their lungs fill with fluid and they die. Other bats seem to be struck by the blades themselves."
Gates said wind energy companies have not yet come up with a way to mitigate bat deaths. "Over time if all these farms are built it could have a tremendous impact on bat populations," Gates said.
Frank Maisano, a U.S. Wind Force spokesman, said though the bat population problem is "something we're trying to resolve," no alternative energy source comes without its caveats.
"The reality is people in Maryland need to understand that wind power is going to be a part of our solution going forward," Maisano said. "Our actions have to meet our words. We've said we want to reduce our carbon footprint; let's do it. There are no energy generation methods that have no impact."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.