The McEvoy Ranch’s plans to build a 189-foot-tall windmill on its North Marin property has put some local environmentalists in the uncomfortable position of protesting a source of alternative energy.
Both environmentalists and neighbors are quick to point out that they aren’t opposed to wind power – or even to the prospect of a windmill at the McEvoy Ranch, a project the Marin Board of Supervisors will consider Tuesday.
“We’re for renewable energy,” said neighbor Susie Schlesinger, whose Petaluma ranch is powered in part by solar cells and a small windmill. “But the county wouldn’t let someone put up a 19-story building anywhere else without saying something about it. This could be the tallest structure between the Golden Gate Bridge and Portland, Oregon.”
What opponents also fear is that the McEvoy project will inspire others to construct windmills on their property, leading to developments similar to the 5,400-mill Altamont wind farm whirring away on Alameda County’s ridges.
“We’re not opposed to wind power. How could you be opposed to a renewable energy source?” said Roger Roberts, president of the Marin Conservation League. “But it’s also important that environmental values be considered, and that traditional protections of the ridgelines be enforced. We’re not excited to see a development like the one in Altamont in the county.”
New county regulations, which supervisors may consider Tuesday, could limit the size and scope of non-commercial windmill projects in Marin. And the consultant supplying the McEvoy windmill says it’s unlikely Marin will ever generate a large market for wind energy.
“I think this is unique,” said Tom Willard, project manager of Sustainenergy Systems in Inverness. “I don’t think you’ll see windmill developments in Marin County. The wind moving across the land area there doesn’t exist.”
Built in 1991 by publishing heiress Nan McEvoy, the 552-acre McEvoy Ranch produces up to 4,500 gallons of olive oil each year. Representatives of the ranch, who did not respond to interview requests, originally planned to build a 246-foot-tall windmill powerful enough to supply 750 kilowatts to the ranch and its olive oil processing plant.
The plan surprised neighbors, including Chip Armstrong, who heard about the windmill after he had purchased property on the other side of Point Reyes-Petaluma Road from the McEvoy Ranch.
“I had been in touch with Russ Morita (of the McEvoy Ranch) about other things, but he didn’t see a need to mention that,” Armstrong said. “I’m not against wind power. I don’t have a problem with a wind turbine 2,300 feet away from me. What’s more significant to me is if they proliferate, if we see all kinds of these things.”
Members of the Planning Commission balked at a scaled-down version, which would have included a 154-foot diameter rotor and 131-foot tower – for a total height of 210 feet – with a light to alert airplanes.
During the commission’s Oct. 10 hearing on the project, neighbors argued that the windmill would ruin area views, harm birds and generate excessive noise.
“The size of the project would equal a 19-story building. That’s huge,” said Sumner Schlesinger, whose home is 1,310 feet from the original windmill site. “It would tower over the Civic Center or Grace Cathedral. It seems like there are other ways of producing energy without building a monument.”
Neighbors argued that the windmill could be harmful to birds. The Altamont windmills have been undergoing a replacement project after environmentalists said they killed up to 4,700 birds a year.
An analysis of the McEvoy plan by county staff argued that no bird or animal species near the property would be harmed by the windmill’s construction. That analysis was supported by a 2006 Point Reyes Bird Observatory study, which concluded that “negative impacts to raptor populations are unlikely.”
The Marin Audubon Society has challenged that claim, arguing that more study was needed to determine the potential for injury to golden eagles, red-tailed hawks and other birds of prey in the area.
The county accepted a noise study by the ranch suggesting that the windmill would produce 45 decibels at the nearest property line, lower than the allowed level of 60 decibels.
And both Marin officials and county staff have argued that the project supports the alternative energy policies specified in the countywide plan, potentially lowering carbon dioxide emissions by 295 tons per year. A November 2006 report by county planners, “Fossil Free by 2033,” even recommends providing low-interest loans to subsidize wind energy production.
“Given the energy challenges of the time, I don’t see how we can not do it,” said Wade Holland, the only member of the Planning Commission to vote in favor of the windmill. “It was a good demonstration project, and it was completely legal. To me, it’s a no-brainer.”
Yet the Planning Commission was ultimately persuaded by neighbors’ arguments that the windmill would be an eyesore. The commission rejected the project 6-1.
“This is a big, industrial turbine. It’s not a windmill like you would see in a Van Gogh painting, or pumping water on a farm,” said neighbor Susie Schlesinger.
According to the commission’s ruling, “the substantial height and size of the (windmill), and its location on a ridgeline, would be incompatible with the visual setting of the surrounding area by detracting from the rural landscape and by having a dominant appearance from neighboring properties and within the viewshed along Red Hill Road.”
In its appeal of the Planning Commission’s decision, the ranch has scaled down its proposal even further. The new windmill would include a 144-foot-diameter rotor atop a 131-foot tower – a total height of 189 feet – and would not include an airplane light. It would produce only 250 kilowatts.
The ranch’s lawyer, former San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan, previously argued that the ranch could not purchase a smaller windmill because the Dutch company that made them had no models in a smaller size. After the Planning Commission’s decision, however, the ranch found a German company that builds smaller windmills.
“We downsized the windmill to accept only the electric load of the ranch,” said Willard of Sustainenergy. “Other renewable technologies, like solar or thermal, could take care of the other facilities, such as the processing plant and the property around the ranch.”
The ranch has also agreed to move the windmill farther from its property lines, placing it on a smaller, less visible ridge.
“It used to be on the ridge near the property line,” Willard said. “Now, it’s on a bluff off the side of Red Hill. It’s not visible or audible to the neighbors now.”
Neighbors aren’t convinced. They want a moratorium on all wind energy projects in Marin until the county passes guidelines that limit their size and scope.
“Our basic position is that the county should not approve this project until it develops a policy for wind energy systems,” said Roberts of the Marin Conservation League. “It should not develop it piecemeal.”
The county has responded by introducing new regulations for windmill development, which supervisors could consider as early as Tuesday.
If approved, the new codes would limit windmill height to less than 200 feet on properties of 320 acres or more. Windmills would have to be located a distance of twice their height or more from property lines, and owners could build no more than one on properties of less than 60 acres, and no more than two on properties of 60 acres or more.
The new regulations would cover windmills that generate power for on-site use only, such as the one proposed for the McEvoy Ranch.
Community Development Director Alex Hinds said it’s unlikely that larger “wind farms” will ever come to the county.
“I think that we’ll see a dramatic increase in the amount of solar photovoltaic cells in use. That’s the technology that provides the greatest promise,” Hinds said. “I think there’s not really widespread potential for major wind development in Marin. However, I do believe that one to two turbines on agricultural property, if properly sited to avoid bird collisions, could add to the achievement of our sustainability goals. We’re not looking at anything large-scale in Marin.”
Schlesinger says otherwise.
“Nan McEvoy is a leader. People want to do what she’s doing,” Schlesinger said. “That’s why people are now growing olives en masse.
“You’re going to see a trend, with turbines going up countywide.”
Supervisors will consider the McEvoy Ranch’s plan to build a 189-foot windmill on its North Marin property in a 2 p.m. public hearing Tuesday at the Marin Civic Center in San Rafael.The ranch is appealing the Planning Commission’s denial of the proposal.
By Rob Rogers
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