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NC judge refuses to dismiss legal challenge to Amazon Wind Farm

Cattle graze in a pasture against a backdrop of wind turbines which are part of the 155 turbine Smoky Hill Wind Farm near Vesper, Kan., Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2015.
Cattle graze in a pasture against a backdrop of wind turbines which are part of the 155 turbine Smoky Hill Wind Farm near Vesper, Kan., Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2015. AP

A Raleigh judge has refused to throw out a citizen lawsuit seeking to block the Amazon Wind Farm in eastern North Carolina, setting the legal dispute for trial next year.

Administrative Law Judge Melissa Owens Lassiter on Monday denied a request to dismiss the lawsuit filed by two residents of Perquimans County, where the 104-turbine energy project is several months into construction.

The husband-and-wife litigants – fireman Stephen Owens and IT administrator Jillanne Badawi – want to force the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality to subject the Amazon Wind Farm to a lengthy regulatory review that project developers have said would derail their $400-million wind farm.

The decision by Judge Lassiter of the N.C. Office of Administrative Hearings to keep the case alive means it will head for a contested case hearing, which is the OAH equivalent of a trial, said Elliot Engstrom, a lawyer for the conservative Civitas Institute, which is representing the Perquimans couple.

The trial would likely get underway this spring, as the wind farm developer, Iberdrola Renewables, is pouring the concrete foundations for the nearly 500-foot tall turbines.

The wind farm, which is being built in Perquimans and Pasquotank counties, will supply power to out-of-state data centers owned by online retailer Amazon. It will be the largest wind energy project in the Southeast.

Iberdrola has said it needs to complete the project next year to qualify for a federal tax credit that will reduce the cost of the project by 30 percent. The credit expires at the end of 2016.

If the Amazon Wind Farm were canceled, Pasquotank County would lose out on nearly $8 million in lost tax revenues and its farmers would forgo more than $10 million in lost lease revenues over the life of the project.

At issue in the dispute is whether the wind farm is subject to a regulatory review under North Carolina’s 2013 wind farm siting law. The law exempted any project that had received approvals from the Federal Aviation Administration when the law was enacted.

Iberdrola later changed some specifications, increasing turbine heights and changing some locations, raising questions whether the company was modifying the same project or essentially starting a new project.

John Murawski: 919-829-8932, @johnmurawski

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