An Annapolis company's bid to build perhaps the first commercial wind farm in Maryland won approval Thursday, though state regulators stressed that they were barred by law from reviewing safety and environmental concerns raised by area residents.
The Public Service Commission cleared Synergics Wind Energy to install up to 20 turbines atop Backbone Mountain near Oakland in Garrett County, concluding a seven-year bid by the company to win state approval for the more than $50 million project.
"It's been a long process," said Wayne Rogers, Synergics' chairman. He said the company still needs a stormwater permit from the state Department of the Environment but expects to get it soon. Construction of the 50-megawatt wind farm is expected to begin next spring and take about eight months to complete, Rogers said.
The three-member commission has given approval for two other wind farm projects in Western Maryland, but neither has moved forward.
Garrett residents who had expressed health and safety concerns about living near Synergics' proposed 400-foot turbines criticized the PSC ruling and said they might go back to court 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 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 might fall on their homes and that their health might be affected by noise or low-level vibrations from the turbine blades.
Fickes and other property owners had filed suit in Garrett County Circuit Court seeking to block the project or require that the turbines be farther from homes. But a judge threw out their case this year, saying it was premature because the wind farm project had yet to gain approval.
In its order, the PSC noted that the General Assembly had approved legislation two years ago streamlining state review of wind projects. 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 gaining approval.
The PSC order said the panel has no authority under the 2007 law to concern itself with public safety, health, environmental or aesthetic issues involved in such wind projects and suggested that those are for local officials to regulate.
The commission's chairman, Douglas Nazarian, expressed discomfort with the law during a hearing last month 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. Frank Maisano, a Synergics spokesman, said the Garrett County judge had been clear on the limited scope of state review of the project when he dismissed the opponents' lawsuit, and that county officials had taken safety into account in approving plans for the turbines' placement.