First commercial wind farm in Maryland

The Public Service Commission cleared Synergics Wind Energy to erect up to 20 wind turbines atop Backbone Mountain near Oakland in Garrett County, concluding a seven-year bid by the wind developer to win state approval of the $50 million-plus wind energy project.

"It’s been a long process," said Wayne Rogers, Synergics’ chairman. He said the company still needs a storm-water pollution permit from the state Department of the Environment, but expects to get it shortly. Construction of the 50-megawatt wind farm should begin next spring, Rogers said, and take about eight months to complete.

The three-member commission has given approval to two other wind farms proposed in western Maryland, but neither has moved forward. Restrictions adopted earlier this year by Allegany County have stalled one planned near Frostburg. The status of another wind farm planned on Backbone Mountain is unclear — a spokesman last year said the developer, Clipper Windpower of California, was still trying to secure financing.

Garrett residents, who’d voiced concerns over safety and potential health effects from living near Synergics’ 400-foot tall turbines, criticized the commission’s ruling and said they were considering going back to court in a bid to block the project.

"What this shows is how biased the PSC is toward wind energy, to the exclusion of everything else, including safety," said Victor Fickes, a retired software engineer who’s built a retirement home within about 1,200 feet of where one of the turbines would be placed. Residents worry that debris or ice from the turbines may fall on their homes, and that their health may be affected by noise or low-level vibrations from the slow-moving turbine blades.

Fickes and other property owners had filed suit in Garrett County Circuit Court seeking to block the project or require the turbines be set back farther from homes. But a judge there threw out their case earlier this year, saying it was premature since the wind farm had yet to even win approval.

In its order, the PSC noted that the General Assembly had approved legislation two years ago streamlining state review of wind projects like this one. The Democrat-dominated Assembly acted at the urging of Synergics’ Rogers, who at the time was chairman of the state Democratic party, as his and other wind farm proposals were having trouble winning approval.

The PSC’s order said it has no authority under the 2007 law to concern itself with public safety, health, environmental or aesthetic issues of such wind power projects and suggested that those are left for local officials to regulate. Thus, the commission’s decision "cannot be read as blessing or approving the project from a health, safety or environmental perspective," it said.

The commission’s chairman, Douglas Nazarian, expressed discomfort with the law during a hearing last month on the project, especially after residents produced a court transcript indicating that a lawyer for Synergics told the judge who threw out their lawsuit that the PSC would be considering safety issues. The PSC order quoted that transcript in a footnote and said the only safety issue the commission can weigh under the law is the wind farm’s impact on the reliability of the electric transmission grid.

"If they couldn’t find a way to do their job and protect the energy consumer, God help us all if the PSC is that shackled," said Jon Boone, an Oakland artist opposed to this and other wind farms.

Frank Maisano, a Synergics spokesman, said that the Garrett judge had been clear on the limited scope of state review of the project when he dismissed opponents’ lawsuit, and that county officials had taken safety into account in approving plans for the turbines’ placement.