A state agency has recommended approval for construction of a wind farm 12 miles northwest of Ellensburg, overriding earlier rejections made by county officials.
The decision of the state’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council brings Horizon Wind Energy, the project’s developer, closer to victory in a five-year battle with Kittitas County citizens and officials who argue the Kittitas Valley Wind Power Project has negative environmental and visual impacts on neighboring residential areas.
Horizon made the argument that the project would meet demand for cleaner energy as well as bring economic development to the area. It expects to generate $5.8 million in direct income to Kittitas County during construction and $1.5 million in property tax revenue annually.
“We’re very pleased EFSEC has affirmed our beliefs that this project has enormous benefits in Kittitas County,” said Chris Taylor, Horizon’s director of project development. “We think the record is exhaustive and strong and shows the project will not have negative impacts.”
Although the council recommended approval of the project, it also recommended several conditions Horizon must meet before and during construction, such as setting back wind turbines far enough that none would loom over nonparticipating residents and abiding with provisions that would protect the area’s wildlife, habitat and vegetation.
In addition, Horizon has already made changes to the project. Horizon has cut the number of wind turbines from 121 to 65; they would generate between 95 to 195 megawatts.
“The project was substantially changed and downsized,” said EFSEC chairman Jim Luce. “The visual impact was reduced significantly.
“The state has a policy of advancing clean energy. Wind energy is clean energy and Kittitas County has a lot of wind.”
The recommendation now goes to Gov. Chris Gregoire, who has 60 days to approve, deny or ask EFSEC to review certain aspects of the proposal.
Tuesday’s decision disappointed several members of a citizen’s group called Residents Opposed to Kittitas Turbines, who has spent years and thousands of dollars arguing that the project was too close to neighboring residents and would alter the area’s landscape.
“I think the human factor was not considered,” said group member Linda Schantz on Tuesday. “Who would buy a piece of property in the middle of a wind farm?”
Tuesday’s recommendation was the first time EFSEC has pre-empted local jurisdiction. Kittitas County commissioners unanimously rejected the project last May, arguing that it did not sufficiently address its impact on neighboring residential areas.
“(Horizon) in their response arguments have failed to recognize or address the very fundamental issue and concern in this matter relating to environmental impacts,” said Kittitas County officials in a briefing it filed earlier to EFSEC. “They inexplicably fail to recognize that visual impacts are environmental impacts.”
Patti Johnson, Kittitas County’s solid waste director and a member of the energy council, cast a dissenting vote, arguing that Horizon did not work with county officials to mitigate environmental impacts.
“I didn’t feel they had continued in good faith the process with the county,” she said.
Opponents continue to stress they are not against wind energy projects, noting that Wild Horse Wind Farm, a 230-megawatt project 13 miles east of Ellensburg that was also developed and built by Horizon, has not received any opposition, is located in a secluded mountain area and easily received commissioner approval.
Wild Horse, which was purchased by Puget Sound Energy, has been in operation since late last year.
“There’s thousands and thousands of acres in Kittitas County where they could’ve put a wind farm,” Schantz said.
Anyone who disagrees with EFSEC’s recommendation now has 12 days to ask the council to reconsider its decision.
Schantz said members of the group plan to read over the council’s decision before it takes any action. It may join county officials if they decide to appeal to EFSEC.
Regardless, she believes EFSEC’s recommendation will open opportunities for approval of other wind farm projects with similar negative environmental and visual impacts, such as the Desert Claim Wind Power Project, which is also awaiting a decision from EFSEC. That project eight miles northwest of Ellensburg.
“That is setting a dangerous precedent for all the local counties and local jurisdictions,” Schantz said.
If the governor approves the project, Horizon will proceed in obtaining permits to begin construction by 2008. It expects to begin operations by later next year.
In the meantime, it will proceed with other aspects of the project while it waits for the governor’s final decision.
But Taylor, of Horizon, is confident the project will move forward, especially amid the passing of Initiative 937, which requires the state to provide cleaner energy sources.
“We think the case for this project has only gotten stronger in the last five years,” he said. “This project is a concrete way to move forward on this mandate of clean energy and economic development.”
By Mai Hoang
28 March 2007
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