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Officials slam Cook for wind project shutdown effort

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Pasquotank County and Elizabeth City officials are roundly criticizing an effort by state lawmakers, including District 1 Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, to shut down the Amazon Wind Farm US East in Pasquotank and Perquimans counties.

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Friday, January 13, 2017

Pasquotank County officials said Friday they will oppose state lawmakers' efforts to shut down Amazon Wind Farm US East.

Several of them also accused state Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, of acting against his district's interests by joining those efforts. One said Cook is “no longer my senator,” while another said the senator owes the region an apology for being part of the effort to shut down the wind project.

In a letter released this week, Cook, along with leaders of the General Assembly and other lawmakers, requested the incoming Trump administration shut down the Amazon wind farm that's almost operational. Their letter claims electromagnetic interference from the wind farm’s turbines would jeopardize the U.S. Navy's long-range radar operations in Chesapeake, Virginia.

The letter makes that claim despite the Navy and Department of Defense agreeing in 2014 to let the wind farm’s developer, Avangrid Renewables, proceed with a scaled-back version of the project. Avangrid had planned to build 150 turbines. Its scaled-down wind farm will feature only 104 turbines.

Cook did not respond to emailed questions about the letter by the presstime for this story on Friday. A response from Cook will be published in a story on Sunday.

Pasquotank Board of Commissioners Chairman Cecil Perry said Friday that the wind energy project should proceed. He said he believes federal agencies “did their homework” on the project and that the wind farm would not be harmful to anyone. To the contrary, he said the project has had major economic benefits.

Perry also said that, as far as he knew, Cook, who represents Pasquotank in the state Senate, had no contact with county officials about shutting down the wind farm – despite the potential economic impacts the move would have on the county.

“I'm not sure he actually understands the impact” of what he's requesting, Perry said.

Perry also called for a unified response in favor of the project continuing, saying Pasquotank and Perquimans officials should discuss it. The wind farm straddles both counties and covers about 22,000 acres.

Kyle Jones, chairman of the Perquimans Board of Commissioners, said as far as his board is concerned, the wind farm will begin operating as planned. 

"That is a decision well above my pay-grade, but until we hear otherwise, our county and our board proceed with the assumption that the project is moving forward," he said.

Pasquotank Commissioner Jeff Dixon was less diplomatic about the lawmakers’ letter to shut down the wind farm. He alleged Cook didn't just sign the letter, but initiated it.

“I have lost all respect for Senator Cook,” Dixon said. “He's no longer my senator.”

Dixon described the letter as an “underhanded sneak attack” driven by opposition to renewable energies, noting Cook's background in the utility sector. He said the wind farm went through years of thorough study and the military signed off on it.

He also argued the lawmakers’ letter is premature, noting the Navy and Avangrid agreed to study the farm's actual operations to verify it can co-exist with radar operations.

Dixon, a Democrat, also said that wind energy should not be a partisan issue. He praised state Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, for standing by the project.

Steinburg said Thursday he considered the letter an attempt to circumvent support for wind energy in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, and vowed to defend the Avangrid project in Pasquotank and Perquimans counties, which he represents.

Commissioner Joe Winslow also said he considers Cook being a signatory to the letter very disappointing, and he intends to tell him so. He had yet to hear from Cook as of Friday afternoon, he said.

“It borders on pathetic they would do something like that,” Winslow said of the lawmakers' letter, adding he believes Cook owes the region an “apology” for the letter.

Winslow said if the wind farm was detrimental to radar operations, he would support scaling it back or shutting it down. But the military extensively studied that issue and allowed the project to go forward, he said.

Winslow noted that contrary to claims of some wind energy opponents, communities easily co-exist with wind farms and they're extremely beneficial. He also said that Avangrid initially hoped to build its project in Ohio, but chose North Carolina instead. Local officials in Ohio continue to welcome wind energy investments, he said, noting the president of the Van Wert Chamber of Commerce came to Elizabeth City to speak in favor of wind projects last spring.

Elizabeth City Mayor Joe Peel also said he was opposed to shutting down the wind farm, adding that he doesn’t believe military concerns are driving the lawmakers' letter. He said he believes the city should respond to the letter.

Peel also said he feels Cook isn’t serving the district's best interests in opposing the project.

Wayne Harris, director of the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank County Economic Development Commission, said he also opposes the lawmakers’ effort. He disagreed the project would harm the Navy’s radar operations in Chesapeake.

“I just think that's completely bogus,” he said.

Harris said the Navy and Avangrid had “intense negotiations” on whether the project could go forward, and they agreed the project could go forward in a modified, scaled-back form. Avangrid agreed to build 104 turbines instead of 150, he noted.

He also said he was “stunned” that lawmakers would try to shut down the project, rendering a $400 million capital investment “worthless.”

Moreover, he said the project's death would deprive Pasquotank County of $250,000 in property tax revenues this year and deprive participating landowners of lease payments. Avangrid estimated last year those payments' total value will start at $624,000 a year and increase each year.

Pasquotank Commissioner Lloyd Griffin appeared to strike a neutral stance on lawmakers’ letter in an interview Friday. While the radar issue was extensively reviewed, Griffin said there was now a “difference of opinion” about whether the wind farm should go forward. He said he couldn't say if the federal review of the project was done correctly.

State Rep. Howard Hunter III, D-Hertford, said Friday he is “100-percent against any efforts to kill” the wind project. He called on House Speaker Tim Moore to visit the wind farm this month.

“I don't know if they realize how this helps poor counties,” Hunter said in an email.

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