By Steve Herring
Published in News on February 6, 2017 9:57 AM

State House Majority Leader John Bell of Goldsboro is among a group of 11 state legislators who have asked Homeland Security Secretary Gen. John Kelly to take another look at a soon-to-be-completed wind farm in northeastern North Carolina.

That request includes shutting the facility down should it be proven to interfere with a nearby military radar installation.

“If the Department of Defense and the military installations say this is not a threat to military training or military operations or national security, then I wish them luck and hope they move forward,” Bell said.

Unlike an earlier wind farm that Bell led successful efforts to stop, the one in northeastern North Carolina poses no threat to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base or the Dare County Bombing Range base jets use for training.

There could be an issue if the new facility was to expand in certain directions, and that is a reason to keep an eye on it, he said.

Also, Bell said there is still concern about cracking the door to such facilities locating in the state.

“That is why Sen. Harry Brown and I have continued to work on the permitting process with the wind facilities to ensure it does not interfere with our military operations,” he said. The 11 lawmakers, including Sen. Louis Pate of Mount Olive, who signed the letter to Kelly argue that a government-funded study concluded the facility would “seriously degrade” the radar’s operational performance.

The preferred option is to shut the facility down, and the company compensated for its investment, but not for any lost future profit, lawmakers said in their letter to Kelly.

The second option is make changes to the Department of Defense agreement that allowed the project to proceed in the first place.

That option would require the developer to shut down when a 5 percent degradation of the radar signal is experienced.

“We have a new administration in Washington, and from what I understand there were a number of residents and folks up in the area who (were) concerned about the impact it would have on the radar system,” Bell said. “All we did in that letter was to ask him to strongly consider looking at that one.

“One, if it would interfere with the radar system, which would be our national security, to look at shutting that wind facility down. The other option said to temporarily put a halt until we are 100 percent that it could not interfere with the radar.”

Bell said he had heard off and on for a while about the project, which was approved by the Department of Defense.

“I give this example, it is one thing to talk with a farmer, but the Department of Agriculture doesn’t represent every farmer,” Bell said. “They don’t understand the views of every single farmer. That is the same with the military and the DOD. The DOD, a lot of that is bureaucracy, and they march to a political tune.

“If there is something interfering with a military installation, Seymour Johnson, Cherry Point or even the radar system, then you actually need to have these conversations with the wing commanders and representatives there because they can give you a better boots-on-the-ground feel of exactly is going on.”

That is how concerns started several years ago as to how that earlier wind facility could impact the mission of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and the Dare County Bombing Range, he said.

“It wasn’t because DOD notified Seymour Johnson,” he said. “(Fourth Fighter Wing Commander) Col. (Jeannie) Leavitt spoke up and said, ‘Hey, this could be detrimental to Seymour Johnson.’ That is how the first wind farm was actually blocked.

“My concern is that an active military installation or an active radar system, I just want to make sure that our national security is put first and foremost. Until there is a positive ‘yes, it interferes,’ or ‘no, it does not interfere,’ I think that needs to be weighed out first before they flip the switch on the farm.”

Bell said he would have no problem with the facility as long as it doesn’t interfere with national security, military training or radar.

However, Bell said he continues to have problems with the tax structure and how the facility came about even though company is in compliance with how the law is written.

“I would like to go back and change the 80 percent property tax abatement and those types of things, which are why these projects are able to exist to begin with,” Bell said. “I would like to go back and change some of those policies. But as of right now, those facilities are compliant with the law. I just want to make sure they are not interfering with any of our military operations.”

Comments from some suggest that the letter is the result of legislators trying to protect the coal and fuel industry. That is unfounded, Bell said.

“I would say that is 100 percent false,” he said. “Part of the issue we have with people’s power bills actually creeping up is because the renewable energy such as wind or solar cannot actually stand on their own.

“They are subsidized. I believe they receive about an 80 percent property tax kickback. That is one way they are able to do it. So they are subsidized through the taxpayers. Then on top of that, on the wind farm side, it could put our second-largest economic impact, which is the military, at risk.”

Also, power companies such as Duke are required to purchase the energy.

Bell said he is not against renewable energy.

“I just don’t believe it should be subsidized by the taxpayers of North Carolina,” he said. “One of the other issues that was brought up to me, which I guess I had thought about it, but really didn’t think about when I visited the wind facility there in the Perquimans area, is the effect that it had on the surrounding property owners.

“They were upset because they feel like their property values are declining because there was a wind farm right next door to them. You had cost associated with running the amount of equipment and the utility and infrastructure they had to have in place to provide power to those wind turbines.”

The local community does not benefit from the energy produced at the plant, he said. It is sold to another entity, Bell said.

“Of course, the community gets the benefit because it is their largest tax base,” he said. “But it is also subsidized by 80 percent. So there is a lot of concern there about quality-of-life issues. There is a lot of concern from residents there about noise and the lights.

“They felt like that infringed on their property rights. It is more than just the military. There were a lot of people there who had a lot of concern from the local community.”

Bell said people had asked him why he visited the facility last week if he was against wind farms.

“I said I am against the wind farm because if you put them in the wrong location it can interfere with the military,” he said. “I am against the subsidizing from the taxpayers. But if I don’t understand both sides of the issue, I’m really not as informed as I should be. I try to hear all sides.

“That is the reason I went and saw it. Frankly, from an architecture perspective it is very impressive. They are huge. The operation there is very impressive and unique. But I tend to like our F-15s a little more.”

Bell said officials of the company building the facility assured him they do not want to interfere with the state’s military missions.

They are willing to work with the state to protect the military, he said.

Bell said he attended several meetings this past week on the original House bill he helped sponsor on permitting the wind farms.

The state Military Affairs Committee was not in place when that bill became law.

“What I am trying to work on now is have our state Military Affairs Committee, which every major military facility is represented on that committee, to have the first crack at looking at proposed project to see if it impacts the military or not,” Bell said.

“That way the wind companies before they make an investment, they know if it is going to be an uphill battle or if they are going to have smooth sailing. I just don’t think it is fair for them or any other company to invest funds, time and energy and then get to the 11th hour like this project and realize there could be a problem that could jeopardize the project. They need to know that right up front before they spend the first dollar.”