An estimated 500 people showed up at Garrett College last night to participate in a public meeting hosted by Maryland Department of Natural Resources secretary John Griffin, the purpose of which was for the DNR to receive public comment on the proposal to lease state forestland in Garrett Coun-ty to a Pittsburgh-based wind energy company. U.S. Wind Force wants to lease an estimated 400 acres of state-owned property in the Potomac and Savage River state forests for the erection of 100 wind turbines.
Because the auditorium at the college seats only about 325 people, many more were standing in the aisles and in the lobby, where a television video of the proceedings was located.
Of the hundreds who were present, it quickly became obvious that over 90% of them were adamantly opposed to the proposal.
Secretary Griffin opened with a welcome to all in attendance and an explanation of the procedures for the evening. That was followed by brief presentations by Michael Woolf, director of the Maryland Energy Administration, and a representative for John Sherwell, head of the Power Plant Research Program for the DNR.
Dozens of persons, many of them representing a wide variety of organizations, followed with comments and opinions about the proposal, the great majority of which were negative.
Most of the concerns centered on the questions about the efficiency and reliability of wind power, threats to wildlife and the environment by wind farms, destruction of forestland for the purpose, negative effects in terms of aesthetics/scenery, noise and light pollution generated by the turbines, diminished property values, and potential negative effects on tourism in general.
The first speaker was Delegate Wendell Beitzel, who received a standing ovation for his comments against the proposal.
After challenging a number of claims by proponents of wind energy, such as noting that it would take 2,000 giant wind turbines to equal the electricity output provided by the power station at nearby Mt. Storm, W.Va., Beitzel said that this was a "personal matter" for him.
"I represent the fifth generation of my family for whom Garrett County is home, and there are two more generations of my family beyond me who live here as well," he said. "Garrett County is not the place to locate these turbines, and I beseech the governor to reject this idea."
He was followed by James "Smokey" Stanton, chair of the Garrett County Democratic Central Committee, who read a letter in opposition.
Charlie Ross, director of the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce, said that his board members voted 12-0, with one abstention, to oppose the proposal as well.
"Garrett County has 193 miles of what are classified as scenic byways," he said. "In other areas of the state, hundreds of miles of scenic byways have been lost because of this kind of development.
"Garrett County has done an excellent job of reclaiming mining sites, cleaning up its water, and managing its state forests," he continued. "How many times must we reclaim, recover, and restore," he said, alluding to the destruction that would be wrought by the turbines."
Scott Johnson, representing the 1,400-member Deep Creek Property Owners Association, read a letter of strong opposition to the proposal on behalf of his board. In part, the letter said that "the industrialization of state forest land is not consistent with the mission of the Maryland State Forests [of DNR], whose first two goals are: restore, manage, and protect Maryland's trees, forests, and forested ecosystems to sustain our national resources; and to connect people with the land."
Johnson noted the fact that just that day he received a copy of a letter from the chairman of the Western Maryland Delegation (western Maryland delegates and senators), directed to Governor Martin O'Malley, rescinding its earlier support of the proposal.
Russell Bounds, a local realtor who has done studies on the impact of wind farms and property values, said that values in nearby Somerset County, Pa., have declined from 50 to 80% since wind turbines were placed in the Meyersdale area several years ago, noting that the major complaints surrounding the turbines are noise, blinking lights, and disruption of scenic beauty. He added that, while the proponents often note the "success" of turbines in Denmark and Great Britain, property values at the turbine sites in those nations have declined 30% and 25%, respectively.
"We have already lost potential buyers of property in Garrett County just because of the proposal to place turbines here," he concluded.
Richard Orr, chairman of the Garrett County Board of Realtors, said that his organization is strongly opposed, and following suit were representatives from Friends of New Germany, the Greater Grantsville Business Association, several local conservancy organizations, and other groups.
Former state senator John Bambacus, now a resident of Friendsville, also spoke in strong opposition.
"For all of us who cherish the beauty and natural qualities of Garrett and Allegany counties, this proposal by U.S. Wind Force, and potentially other wind developers, is without merit," he said. "These industrial wind turbine companies are interested only in profit, state and federal subsidies, and tax breaks."
He went on to urge that lawmakers, both local and state, must first establish regulation of this industry before allowing any projects to proceed.
"There is no established, thorough regulatory authority for the industrial wind power industry in place in Allegany or Garrett County. Since there are no comprehensive ordinances in place, does anyone really know what we are getting into?" he asked.
Of the nearly four dozen people who spoke, all were in opposition, with the exception of four individuals, none of whom are residents of the county, as noted by a subsequent speaker.
One of those who spoke in favor of the proposal was Frank Maisano, a hired spokesperson for wind developers, who said that wind farms provide pollution-free electricity and will be crucial for addressing a pending shortage of electric power.
"This is not only about Garrett County," he said. "It's about Maryland, our country, and the world. We need more and cleaner energy from wind. These public lands belong to all of us."
He was followed at the microphone by local resident Jeff Conner, who noted that Maisano was paid to be at the meeting by the wind developers.
"How many other people were paid to be here tonight?" Conner asked the audience.
A second public meeting will be held this evening at the Arundel Center in Annapolis. Persons may also submit comments online at www.dnr.state.md.us/sustainability/wpm/, with the deadline for comments being March 3.
The Garrett County commissioners, all three of whom were present at the meeting, have yet to vote on whether or not to support the proposal, but are expected to within in next week. They noted at a recent meeting that they decided it would be best to wait until after last night's meeting to take a vote on the issue.