The permit process for the Kittitas Valley Wind Power Project has taken 4 1/2 years already, so what’s another couple of weeks?
The state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council recommended the project’s approval in May, not expecting to revisit it. But after a request from Gov. Chris Gregoire, the agency reopened talks on the matter at a pair of hearings Tuesday in Ellensburg. Per Gregoire’s request, the discussion was limited to whether the project’s wind turbines could be placed farther from nearby landowners “while allowing the project to remain economically viable.”
“She made it clear that she thought the council did a good job of everything else,” said Adam Torem, the administrative law judge overseeing the process.
On Tuesday, Torem presided over both an afternoon session at which the project’s developer, Kittitas County and other interested parties pleaded their cases, and an evening session featuring testimony from neighbors and the public at large. Athe main points to come out of the sessions was a pledge from the developer, Horizon Wind Energy of Houston, to go above and beyond the setback requirements where it can. That would happen during the “micro-siting” phase of the project, during which the company would work with EFSEC staff on precisely where to place its wind turbines, which could stand 410 feet high. The minimum setback – or distance from existing homes – as recommended to Gregoire by EFSEC is four times the height of the turbines. That distance does not apply to homes owned by people who have been paid by Horizon as part of the project.
That is something of a compromise for the company, which originally planned to erect 120 turbines when it applied for a permit in January 2003. By 2006 the company, under pressure from opponents and from Kittitas County officials, lowered the plan to 65 turbines. Using EFSEC’s setback recommendations could cost the project another eight turbines, dropping the number to somewhere in the mid-50s. At that number, the project would still be financially viable, said Tim McMahon, a Portland attorney representing Horizon.
Imposing setbacks of 2,500 feet, as suggested by Kittitas County officials, would cost 24 turbines and would not be viable, he said. The sticking point is, according to Kittitas County officials, that the company has never indicated the minimum number of turbines – and therefore the biggest possible setback – it would be willing to live with.
“Even today the applicant is unwilling to give a number of turbines at which it would be economically viable,” he said.
Doing so, he said, would require reopening the entire adjudication process on the permit, not just getting more comments within the limited scope requested by Gregoire. That remains a possibility, because “economic viability” was barely touched on during the prior adjudication and the record is now closed, Torem said.
“If the governor wants us to go back and find that, we’re going to have to go back and reopen the adjudication,” he said.
That is the last thing Horizon wants, having believed just a month ago that it had cleared the EFSEC hurdle, McMahon said.
But several of the 100 or so people at the evening session want the whole project re-evaluated. Ed Garrett, who owns property nearby, said people in the area are trying to move out because they fear the giant machines will destroy their quality of life.
“(Gregoire) needs to understand the whole picture, and the effects on landowners in Kittitas County,” he said.
Besides reopening the entire case, EFSEC could send its recommendation back to Gregoire with no change or with larger setbacks, Torem said. The group will meet to discuss the matter in about two weeks, after the transcripts from Tuesday’s hearings are compiled. It should have a decision by mid-August, he said.
By Pat Muir
18 July 2007
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