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Reactions mixed on county wind farm appeal

ELLENSBURG – The reaction to the Monday announcement that Kittitas County commissioners will mount a legal appeal against Gov. Chris Gregoire’s approval of the 65-turbine Kittitas Valley Wind Power Project was not surprising: project supporters are disappointed, but those against the location of the 6,000-acre wind farm like the challenge.

Others indicated the legal action is welcome in that the state Supreme Court may answer, once and for all, whether land-use decisions made by local governments and their elected officials have a stronger legal standing than state actions to overrule those decisions.

Gregoire’s decision on Sept. 18 overruled Kittitas County’s earlier rejection of the $150 million wind farm sought by Houston-based Horizon Wind Energy for a site 12 miles northwest of Ellensburg on both sides of U.S. Highway 97.

The governor’s decision was the first time that state government has overruled a local county decision on an energy project going through the review process used by the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, or EFSEC.

Linda Schantz of Robbins Road, spokeswoman for Residents Opposed to Kittitas Turbines, said the 400-member group heartily supports the county’s decision to take the governor to court.

The group isn’t opposed to wind energy, but believes the location of the 65-turbine project is a wrong one because they see it as being in the midst of existing home sites and future rural home sites northwest of Ellensburg.

“There were so many things wrong with the governor’s decision, so many issues that were not addressed by the state,” Schantz said. “We are 120 percent behind the county commissioners’ appeal.”

She said the group will meet in the next few days to explore options on how the citizens’ advocacy group can support what appears will be a long legal battle by the county in attempts to overturn the EFSEC recommendation to OK the Horizon project and Gregoire’s final approval.

Desmond Knudson, local businessman and chairman of the Kittitas County Alliance for Renewable Energy, said he was surprised at the commissioners’ decision and “very disappointed.” The alliance, he said, is a group of business people and citizens who support the reasonable development of wind power in Kittitas County.

“I thought we could move on with life after the governor’s decision on Sept. 18th,” Knudson said. “When I heard what the commissioners did on Monday, I was amazed and so are thousands of other residents of Kittitas County who support local wind power projects.

“The state needs energy and there are some still fighting it, including our local county commissioners.”

He said the Kittitas Valley project will have few negative impacts and will help the local economy and provide stable tax revenue to local governments, including county government. He lamented that tax funds the county is currently receiving from an existing wind farm east of Ellensburg may be used to pay for the expensive legal costs the county will incur to bring the challenge to the state Supreme Court.

Knudson said he believes the commissioners are being “politically pushed” to seek the legal action.

Chris Taylor, director of development for Horizon Wind Energy, said the project, in efforts to be more compatible, has reduced by half the number of turbines sought at the site. The project was unveiled in April 2002 and formally sought state approval in January 2003.

Taylor said Horizon is disappointed with the commissioners decision to seek an appeal.

“Everyone agrees this project will bring substantial economic benefits to Kittitas County, and there is a pressing need for more clean energy in Washington,” Taylor said in a prepared statement. “It is time to move on and get this project built so the landowners, the community and he state can reap the many benefits.”

Taylor said the project is “undeniably” the most thoroughly studied wind farm proposal in the Pacific Northwest after five years of review, study, hearings and testimony.

“At every turn, Horizon, EFSEC and the governor have tried to accommodate the county commissioners and their concerns,” he said.

He said Kittitas County is the only county in Eastern Washington and Oregon deciding to spend “scarce tax dollars” to fight wind farm investments.

State Rep. Bill Hinkle, a Republican from Cle Elum, said he wasn’t surprised at the county’s action, given the importance of the governor’s action in light of existing state laws that give local government decisions more legal weight.

“I’m glad it’s going to court,” Hinkle said. “The whole issue is bigger than just wind energy in Kittitas County. This is a question that needs to be answered for all local governments in the state. It has to be answered before the Legislature writes more laws.”

A Supreme Court decision, he said, will give future energy projects coming before the state more predictability as to exactly who has the final authority to say yes or no to the development.

By Mike Johnston
Senior Writer

Daily Record

10 October 2007