05/19/13 — Wind farms limit is now law

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Wind farms limit is now law

By Steve Herring
Published in News on May 19, 2013 1:50 AM

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Gov. Pat McCrory, third from left, stops on the steps of the old state Capitol building to chat with from left, Sen. Louis Pate of Mount Olive, and Reps. John Bell of Goldsboro and Jimmy Dixon of Calypso Friday morning just minutes after signing legislation designed to protect the state's military bases from encroachment by windmill farms. Bell and Dixon were two of the House bill's primary sponsors. Pate and Sen. Don Davis of Snow Hill were among the sponsors of the Senate's version of the bill.

RALEIGH -- Relief. That is how freshman state Rep. John Bell of Goldsboro described his feelings Friday morning just minutes after Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law a bill establishing a permitting process for windmill farms -- a bill designed to safeguard the state's military installations.

It was relief not only that the work to get the law on the books was over, but that it had been accomplished quickly enough to head off a proposed windmill farm in eastern North Carolina that would have endangered the low-level flight training of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base's F-15E Strike Eagles.

Bell called the law a "huge, huge victory" not only for the area, but for the entire state.

"Right now it is relief that we got it through because this was time sensitive," Bell said. "The stress behind the scenes, moving the legislation, being sure it got signed when it did, being sure that it got to the right chambers.

"But I was very fortunate that Sen. (Louis) Pate (of Mount Olive) and Sen. Harry Brown (of Jacksonville) were involved in this legislation from the very beginning and allowed me to be a part of it and run it through the House."

Basically what the legislation does is form a uniform permitting process for wind energy facilities in the state, Bell said.

"It takes into effect the vital military mission that we have, and also environmental concerns," he said. "This will be the permitting process for wind energy moving forward here in our state."

Previously the state had "very little" in the way of regulations, Bell said.

Bell and Rep. Jimmy Dixon of Calypso, two of the primary sponsors of the House bill, and Pate, a sponsor of the Senate version, were with the governor when he signed the bill.

The three local Republican legislators gathered in a conference room in the historic North Carolina state Capitol just doors away from where McCrory had signed the bill to talk about their part in shepherding the legislation through the General Assembly.

However, they were quick to point out that the success was due to the many people in the eastern part of the state who supported and lobbied for the bill's passage.

"We have consulted with a lot of people who are intimately familiar with both sides of this argument," Pate said. "They have been very gracious and open with their opinions and that has been very helpful."

All the parties were brought to the table, including people in the wind energy industry, Bell said.

"We worked with the governor's military advisor, the governor's office, we had folks from public utilities there," he said. "We had representatives not only from the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base MAC (Military Affairs Committee), but also Cherry Point's MAC.

"Our MAC in Goldsboro and the one at Cherry Point were instrumental to help make this happen. This was a team effort, a big team effort."

The law is a model for other states to follow and reaffirms that North Carolina is the most military friendly state in the nation, the three men said.

Pate has been drawing attention to the windmill issue and championing legislation to address those concerns for nearly a year.

"Word came out that this project was being planned down there in Beaufort County," Pate said. "I think people realized right off the get-go that this was going to be very dangerous for Seymour Johnson's mission. I think it was important for us to pass this legislation. I appreciate the governor signing it into law right away because it just cleared the Senate this week.

"It came over here to him and he signed it right away because he realizes the importance of it because the military means so much to us financially, in addition to other ways as well. Of course this impacts national defense because you have got to train the way that you are going to fight."

The state has been looking at similar legislation since 2009 when windmills and renewable energy began being discussed, Bell said. But it gained a sense of urgency when it was realized it was going to impact military low-level-flying routes, he said.

"Once we got that through the House, a majority of the members in the House through the committee process had already heard of the bill," he said. "That is why it was able to pass through the House as quick as it did. It passed 112-2 on the floor."

There were two committee hearing in the Senate with debate, where it was approved 48-0 earlier in the week, Pate said.

"When you look at it, everybody wants business here in eastern North Carolina, but when you look at the economic impact you are talking a $52 billion economic impact to our state is what our military brings in," Bell said. "Then you look at the impact it would have just on our community in Wayne and surrounding communities and you factor in Cherry Point -- once people understood the big picture and how this legislation was to our military mission it was a no-brainer."

It was the absence of a permitting process that put the state in close proximity to jeopardy relative to the training of the F15-E Strike Eagle pilots, Dixon said.

The windmill project was being pushed even as the legislation moved through the General Assembly and was close to being approved, he said.

The bill, Dixon said, was "very time sensitive."

"This is not a bill that is against wind energy at all, but placement of these structures is very important to military flight operations," Pate said.

It was in August of 2012 when the potential of interference with low-level flying routes was realized, Bell said.

"Then the military component got added and that made it a very strong piece of legislation," Bell said.

Pate said he thinks that is what saved the day for the bill.

The military personnel cannot really speak out about their concerns because they are "absolutely subservient" to the civilian leaders of the Department of Defense, Pate said.

"So they could not really express their opinions publicly so they had to be very careful in this whole episode," he said. "But I think we have done a great deal to protect our military in North Carolina -- not we, but I think the General Assembly and the governor did a great thing."

Dixon said that the military tour McCrory took with then-Gov. Bev Perdue following his election was a key factor.

"He received a presentation sponsored by Col. (Jeannie M.) Leavitt (commander of the 4th Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base) and her people that was enormously educational to the governor," Dixon said. "As a result of that conference held at Seymour Johnson, the governor got immediately involved."

The proper groundwork was laid for the legislation so that supporters were operating from a position of strength, Dixon said.

"Had we not been unified and had the advantage not only of being in a position of strength, but also what was right, this could have met tremendous opposition, but the team effort and operating from a position of strength worked.

"The bottom line of what our current position is as the result of this legislation the wind energy issues are both state and national. We have advantaged our military now so that when we are in discussion in Washington (D.C.) we can now say, 'North Carolina has a law dealing with these issues.' That solidified the appropriate measures to properly protect our vital military interest in North Carolina."

Bell agreed.

"The word I got last night when I was talking with folks who had been in Washington is that the number-one issue facing our Air Force is the encroachment of wind turbines on their training routes and low-level flying routes," Bell said. "North Carolina now has model legislation that is on the forefront protecting our bases which once again proves that we are the most military friendly state in the country."