Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire any day will announce her widely anticipated decision about whether to permit a controversial wind power project near Ellensburg that previously was rejected by Kittitas County commissioners.
The decision may have statewide implications. Forsome, project approval would amount to an egregious case of Olympia trampling over a local government’s legal rights to make its own decisions about land use.
“I think it’s huge,” said Benton County Commissioner Leo Bowman. “It’s bigger than what most of us have thought about.”
For others, approving the Kittitas Valley Wind Power Project is the only practical solution in a state where voters have approved an initiative requiring more environmentally friendly power plants.
Gregoire isn’t required to issue a decision until mid-October. But having reviewed the project before – she sent it back to the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council in May – Gregoire has said she expects to decide this week or next. She tried to express understanding for both sides.
“In my letter … I said, I want to respect the jurisdiction and authority of the locals and I do,” Gregoire said. “But I also understand that under state law there is a significant responsibility by the state and the governor to ensure we are looking at alternative sources of energy.”
Whatever she decides may not end the discussion. Her decision could be appealed to the state Supreme Court. And changes may be sought in the Legislature to scale back the siting council’s jurisdiction to issue permits for wind projects.
“If nothing else we will be in the Legislature trying to change some of the things where our authority has deteriorated a bit,” said Kittitas County Commissioner David Bowen.
The state siting council – made up of agency representatives and gubernatorial appointments and known as EFSEC – generally only considers applications for large power projects, leaving counties to handle permitting for smaller facilities.
But in recent years the council’s authority has been expanded by the Legislature allowing it to also permit alternative energy projects. All decisions rest with the governor. And when Kittitas County commissioners rejected the permit application for the Kittitas Valley Wind Power Project – unable to reach agreement on appropriate setbacks from 16 neighboring landowners – developer Horizon Wind Energy turned to the state siting council.
Horizon had proposed 1,320 feet, or four times the height of a 330-foot tall 1.5-megawatt turbine.
The commissioners felt setbacks of 2,000 feet from a neighboring property line and 2,500 feet from a neighboring home was more appropriate.
“It fit the culture,” Bowen said.
The siting council recommended in March that Gregoire issue a site permit anyway, concluding Horizon had made a good-faith effort to compromise with the county by significantly reducing its initial proposal.
When Gregoire sent the issue back to the siting council in May she asked if turbines could be set farther back from the 16 homes and still allow the project to operate economically.
“I did that out of respect for the commissioners,” Gregoire said.
The council made only minor changes – asking Horizon to push turbines as far back as possible when determining their precise location – before sending it to Gregoire a second time.
Area residents not next to the project also have opposed it but their arguments have been largely dismissed because “such objections could only be resolved by cancellation of the project,” council Chairman Jim Luce said last month.
Some observers have a hard time seeing how Gregoire would reject the project now.
“It would be hard for me to understand why she would,” said Marc Krasnowsky, a spokesman for the green leaning Northwest Energy Coalition. “She sent it back and (EFSEC) did what they could. I think due diligence has been paid to this project again and again.”
A ‘big deal’
Other local governments are tracking the developments but their interest has nothing to do with wind power.
“Pre-empting local government’s right to be making land use decisions is a big deal,” said Bill Vogler, executive Director for the Washington State Association of Counties. “We have a long history of saying, ‘Let us make a decision.’ We don’t think the state ought to be making land use decisions for local governments.”
The organization has not formally taken a position on the issue, partly because it is so geographically targeted. Only five of the state’s 39 counties are home to wind projects, Vogler said.
Bowman, a commissioner in one of those five counties, said the others are watching anyway.
“All county commissioners are following that,” he said. “It’s a huge precedent. The implication is that an agency can overturn on any issue.”
Even U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., has chimed in, sending a letter to Gregoire last month that, while not asking her to reject the project, expressed concern about pre-empting a local land use decision.
“Ignoring or overriding these decisions should not be done lightly and would send a clear signal that the local process is of no value,” he wrote.
Wind power supporters see it entirely differently.
“The local control argument certainly has some weight to it in a lot of people’s minds but this isn’t just a local issue,” Krasnowsky said. “We’re talking about energy for a state and a region.”
September 12th, 2007
By Chris Mulick, Herald Olympia bureau
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