Safe for Somerset warns officials that ethics laws apply if they vote on IWECS and it benefits them or a ‘qualified relative’

MARION — A vote on a draft ordinance governing the placement of industrial wind energy conversion systems (IWECS) in certain zones is expected by the Somerset County Planning and Zoning Commission on Tuesday, Oct. 28.

In advance of that action, a Salisbury attorney representing a group opposed to IWECS cautioned commission members as well as the County Commissioners of state and local law regarding conflicts of interest.

Steve Smethurst on behalf of Safe for Somerset writes that public officials “are prohibited from participation in any matter in which the official or his/her ‘qualified relative’…has to the official’s knowledge an ‘interest’.”

A “qualified relative” is defined as a spouse, parent, child or sibling while “interest” in the state ethics law means “a legal or equitable interest…directly or indirectly….”

The letter further warns against accepting or soliciting gifts or other benefits for themselves or relatives, and, the how a commission member may violate the code of ethics if he or she participates in the passage of legislation that would benefit wind project developer Pioneer Green.

Safe is currently investigating whether some commissioners or family members may be personally benefiting from the project.

“Given the many close associations and relationships that you have with persons holding turbine leases, I urge you to give careful consideration to making sure your continuing participation in this legislative process does not violate the county and state ethics law,” Mr. Smethurst wrote. “Safe for Somerset has advised that they intend to prosecute aggressively each ethics violation that occurs in the context of industrial wind-powered turbines in Somerset County.”

“The commissioners deny real threats to health and safety imposed by these huge turbines,” said Harvey Kagan, a Safe spokesman. “These are the same safety concerns that forced Pioneer Green out of Alabama this summer,” referring to an August announcement that Pioneer Green was pulling out of Alabama because it could not meet design specifications and setback regulations there. “If Pioneer Green’s safety standards are unacceptable in Alabama, why are they acceptable here?,” asked Mr. Kagan.

The ordinance under consideration describes the framework that companies must follow to place IWECS in Industrial-1 and -2 zones as well as General Commercial-2 and Ag-Residential districts. That includes tower height, currently recommended to be no more than 400 feet to the tip of a vertical blade, setbacks, and noise limits.

Once the appointed members of the planning commission endorse their version of the bill, it goes to the County Commissioners who will hold their own public hearing before scheduling a final vote.

Once adopted, and if all conditions are met, final determination locally is determined by the Somerset County Board of Zoning Appeals following a public hearing.

But Mr. Kagan described other issues that need to be more seriously addressed, such as the impact of turbines on property values, the cost to taxpayers and electricity users, and harm to the environment such as bat and bird kills. Safe held a public forum Oct. 16 at the Somerset County Civic Center to explain these issues and none of the local elected officials attended.

“They were all invited but not a single commissioner came,” he said. “They’ve been arrogant and dismissive. They don’t seem to care about the welfare of the citizens.”

The attorney’s letter is to serve as a reminder that the officials involved in the decision making process act responsibly. “We believe that there are other interests in play,” Mr. Kagan said. “The letter clearly defines what constitutes an ethics violation. They need to make full disclosure before they vote on this project.”

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