Tom Quinn hoped to finish his log home on a rolling hillside above Mosier this year, then kick back and feast on his Columbia River Gorge view: wildflowers, stands of pine and oak, the whipped cream swirl of Mount Adams.
But within a few years, 40 wind turbine towers, each taller than the Statue of Liberty, could obstruct that view, the whop-whopping of turbine blades slicing the solitude whenever the wind blows at least 8 mph. On Seven Mile Hill, that means every day in April through September, when winds clock monthly averages of 18 to 24 mph.
Driven by an unprecedented push for pollution-free electric generation, wind farms are rising throughout the gorge. Until now, the towers have gone up farther east, in remote fields of wheat and on rangeland where farmers and county officials see them as worry-free cash generators.
Now a Massachusetts company wants to catch the wind that whips across the ridge between Mosier and The Dalles. The Cascade Wind Project proposed by UPC Wind Partners is the first to reach into a rural Oregon community. Predictably, the 389-foot towers have riled the locals.
Yet the clash goes deeper than a spat between neighbors and a developer. The northern cluster of Cascade Wind’s turbines would brush the boundary of the federally protected Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.
That sets up a conflict between Northwest values, pitting a revved-up desire to advance clean, renewable energy against the long-held belief that rural and scenic areas deserve special care.
“Siting is absolutely critical,” said Michael Lang, conservation director for The Friends of the Columbia Gorge, a nonprofit group that works to protect the scenic area. “How do we continue to support renewable energy but protect areas like the gorge and protect the rights of adjacent landowners? That’s the key question.”
UPC Wind has developed wind farms in other parts of the country, but this is its first in Oregon. Given the sensitive location, the company anticipated some unfriendliness. But the get-out-of-town reception has underscored how long and acrimonious the review process is likely to be.
A complicated process
The company is rethinking a schedule that called for completion next year. Officials said they’re counting on a thorough application and Oregon’s enthusiasm for renewable energy to help secure approval.
As proposed, each 1.5-megawatt turbine would produce enough electricity to power the equivalent of 300 homes annually.
But the wind project could blow the doors off traditional thinking about environmental and land-use protections. Many of the turbines would be visible from within the scenic area, including along Washington’s State Route 14 and Interstate 84, Rowena Plateau and McCall Point Trail, according to UPC Wind’s application.
“It’s certainly different from the other wind projects,” said David Ripma, chairman of the Oregon Energy Facility Siting Council, a seven-member board that must approve the proposal. “Frankly, there’s way more opposition.”
On a warm, blustery evening in late July, the siting council held an informal hearing in The Dalles. Generally, Ripma and his colleagues wait until deep into the review of a project before they have hearings. But opposition has been quick and strong, and council members wanted to hear local concerns.
A crowd of more than 100 crammed into the meeting room. One by one, neighbors spoke.
They didn’t want 389-foot-high towers obstructing their views. They didn’t want to listen to spinning turbine blades. They worried about potential harm to hawks, deer and other wildlife. They said their health could be harmed by the continuous flicker of turbine blades flashing in the sun and the high-voltage power lines.
“People move here for the scenic beauty,” said Mike Rockwell, a real estate agent who lives in Mosier, the tiny town in the valley below Seven Mile Hill. “They don’t come here to have an industrial plant in their backyard.”
Scott Hege’s home looks out on views of Mount Adams and Mount Hood. He would see turbines in three directions, the closest about one-half mile from his home.
“I’ve invested hundreds of thousands for my solitude, and here I have this huge annoyance,” said Hege, a general contractor and former executive director of the Port of The Dalles. “It’s ruined our world.”
5,800 acres designated
Notably absent from the microphone at that July hearing were the four families who own the 5,800 acres that UPC Wind has designated for the project.
Michael and Cathie Kortge of The Dalles grow wheat on about 800 acres along the top of Seven Mile Hill, where the wind ripples the fields in vast green waves. They have kept to themselves, and Seven Mile Hill residents refer to them as the “absentee landowners.”
“People who are for it aren’t willing to stand up and be yelled at,” Cathie Kortge said in a phone interview. “No matter what we say, we won’t change their minds.”
About half the turbines would go up on the Kortges’ property. UPC Wind would pay the couple based on the electricity generated annually. The Kortges declined to say how much that might be.
The cash can accumulate quickly, and farmers in windy regions across the country see turbines as lucrative additions to business operations. Some are paid by the kilowatt or megawatt hour, as the Kortges would be. Others receive an annual per turbine rate ranging from $7,000 to $14,000.
“I’m 66 and supposed to be retired,” Michael Kortge said. “I could turn a lot more over to my kids if we had that stream of revenue.”
Wind energy developers have been after the Kortge property for decades. Before he hooked up with turbine maker GE Wind, Kortge held lease agreements with Enron Wind Systems and California’s Zond Systems. UPC Wind is working with GE on the Seven Mile Hill project.
UPC Wind was another silent party at the July hearing. Two company officials and an attorney from Portland’s Stoel Rives law firm sat quietly mid-auditorium. With their neatly trimmed hair and pressed blue shirts, they were easy to spot amid the T-shirts, shorts and ponytails.
Revising the application
Project manager Krista Kisch had planned to speak, but the company is revising its application, and officials decided to wait until they have more complete information. “We will either better design the project or determine ways to mitigate the impact,” Kisch said later. She declined to elaborate.
The Oregon Department of Energy ruled the preliminary application incomplete in early July. The agency kicked it back to UPC Wind with questions about everything from noise levels to wildlife impacts to road routes. A final ruling could be more than two years away, said Adam Bless, the department official heading the staff review.
One of the thorniest issues involves the gorge scenic area, an 85-mile swath of land that stretches along both sides of the Columbia from the Sandy River on the outskirts of Portland east to the Deschutes River.
Congress created the scenic area in 1986 to “protect and provide for the enhancement of the scenic, cultural, recreational and natural resources of the Columbia River Gorge.” A 13-member commission carries out the act’s rules and regulations, applying strict standards to any proposed development.
But the commission doesn’t deal with projects outside the scenic area.
“Congress was clear,” said Brian Litt, the gorge commission’s planning manager. “We don’t have any jurisdiction outside the boundary.”
The commission agreed to help Oregon regulators with an analysis of the project’s aesthetic impact, Litt said, but won’t do its own review.
UPC Wind maintains that the turbines would be seen only from some points within the scenic area, often miles away; won’t dominate the landscape; and will meet state and federal standards.
Lang, of The Friends of the Columbia Gorge, disagrees. The turbines’ visibility from key gorge viewpoints is “flat-out illegal,” he said.
The Oregon Energy Facility Siting Council will take federal management and county land-use plans into account when it makes its decision. The seven-member siting council won’t weigh in for some time.
Of the five who attended the July 26 meeting, only Chairman Ripma spoke. “We’ve heard you,” he said after more than three hours of testimony, but emphasized that “we have to decide in accordance with the law.”
Ripma, a patent attorney who lives in Troutdale, waited for the crowd to leave before heading to the parking lot. He pulled on a helmet, got on his black Harley-Davidson cruiser and disappeared down the hill toward home.
By Gail Kinsey Hill
14 August 2007
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