Fall Real Estate: Fueling Change

One group challenges a plan to put wind turbines on a wild mountain ridge in northeastern Pennsylvania because it doesn’t like how the turbines will look and sound.

One group challenges a plan to put wind turbines on a wild mountain ridge in northeastern Pennsylvania because it doesn’t like how the turbines will look and sound.

Another group battles developers hoping to erect an ethanol refinery in Franklin County.

These kinds of fights over land use are likely to become more common as Pennsylvania, and the country as a whole, struggles to create alternatives to foreign oil and other established forms of energy, according to local observers.

“I think it’s going to be a huge issue going forward,” said Joel Burcat, a Harrisburg attorney who heads the environmental practice at Saul Ewing.

Changing regulations and incentives are boosting the demand for alternative energy sources, observers said. Concerns about climate change and the rising cost of fossil fuels, such as oil and natural gas, also are driving interest.

Pennsylvania is home to eight wind farms, with plans moving ahead for at least six more, according to the American Wind Energy Association in Washington, D.C. Several farms, including Waymart Wind Farm in northeastern Pennsylvania, had to win over local critics before opening.

The state has no ethanol refineries, though one is under construction in Clearfield County and others are in the works.

Gov. Ed Rendell and the state Legislature, meanwhile, have been sparring over plans to fund efficient energy use and promote new sources of electricity.

“There’s no doubt in anybody’s mind at this point that we’re in the midst of an energy crisis, and government is looking for all kinds of alternatives,” said Burcat, who represents developers hoping to build an ethanol refinery in Schuylkill County. In addition to wind and ethanol, he expected to see rising interest in nuclear power.

What that means for rural Pennsylvania is renewed attention from developers, who may have to tread carefully when it comes to local sensitivities.

“It requires very, very careful planning up front to try to locate a place that is gong to be suitable from a technical perspective, but also suitable from a perspective of having neighbors who are happy, or at least tolerant of that facility near them,” Burcat said.

Efforts to hash out the issues on a larger scale already have begun. Several statewide groups representing environmentalists and local municipalities have drafted a model zoning ordinance for locating wind turbines. The ordinance lays out requirements for features such as color, lighting, security and distance from neighboring properties.

The ordinance can help townships exert some control over wind-farm development when it happens, said Elam Herr, assistant executive director for the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors in Hampden Township, Cumberland County.

Otherwise, municipalities could find themselves at the mercy of developers, Herr said. “That’s why it’s better to be proactive, because you have an uphill battle if you haven’t been.”

The model ordinance won praise from Nathan Willcox, energy and clean-air advocate for

PennEnvironment in Philadelphia.

“It’s both for the local communities, because it gives them an idea of what they should be asking about, and for wind companies, so they don’t have to deal with a thousand different ordinances,” Willcox said.

While wind turbines still will face opposition, Willcox acknowledged, it could fade as concerns about climate change strengthen.

“I think that you will see a higher percentage of communities welcoming these projects with open arms,” he said.

Ethanol refineries could remain a tougher sell. Opponents beat back plans for a refinery in Franklin County in 2005. And in recent months, the fuel’s image has suffered as critics complain that the diversion of corn to produce ethanol is driving up food prices.

Indeed, the fuel’s moment may already have passed, said Frederic G. Antoun, an attorney in Chambersburg. He represented the Franklin County citizens’ group opposed to the ethanol refinery.

“No one sees it as a long-term solution,” Antoun said. Americans would be better off making cars more fuel efficient, he added.

Ethanol doesn’t have to come from corn, and that’s where Pennsylvania still might play a role. So-called cellulosic ethanol comes from crop waste, small trees and other natural sources that abound in Pennsylvania, said Tom Tuffey, director of the Center for Energy, Enterprise and the Environment at PennFuture, an environmental advocacy group based in Harrisburg.

Cellulosic-ethanol refineries could be installed in abandoned pulp and paper mills around the state, Tuffey said.

Whatever forms new sources of energy take, interest in them is unlikely to wane, Tuffey said. People will be searching for cleaner, cheaper, more efficient energy, and they will be looking for sources closer to home.

“It’s such a fundamental thing, it’s going to take a couple decades to play out,” Tuffey said.

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