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Proposed zoning change draws heat in Skamania County

Skamania County is considering opening wide swaths of land to renewable-energy development.

The county planning commission will take testimony tonight on a proposed zoning ordinance that has drawn heated opposition from foes of a proposed wind project near Underwood Mountain, just outside the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area boundary.

The hearing begins at 7 p.m. at Rock Creek Center in Stevenson.

County officials say they want to encourage development of alternative energy on land that’s currently unzoned. That includes just about all the county outside the national scenic area, the incorporated towns of Stevenson and North Bonneville, the unincorporated town of Carson and the area north of Swift Reservoir in the county’s north end. Most is forestland owned by the state, the U.S. Forest Service or private timber companies.

Industrial development feared

Critics say the ordinance could open most of the county to a wider array of industrial development, from wind turbines to geothermal facilities to hazardous-waste treatment plants.

Opposition to the ordinance is being led by Underwood-based Save Our Scenic Area, a group fighting the proposed Saddleback Wind Project at the edge of the national scenic area.

SDS Lumber Co. and Broughton Lumber Co. hope to build a 44-turbine wind project on private timberland behind Underwood Mountain. They have not yet filed a formal application.

Some of the turbines in the project would be visible from viewpoints within the scenic area. But SDS President Jason Spadaro says the turbines would be placed along a north-south alignment and would not interfere with “million-dollar views” to the south and west. The project would generate about $500,000 annually in taxes to the county.

Two environmental groups, Portland-based Friends of the Columbia Gorge and Save Our Scenic Area, already have challenged the county’s conclusion that the proposed zoning code doesn’t merit a full environmental review. That issue will come before a county hearings examiner at a hearing on Aug. 28.

Implementing restrictions

Opponents maintain that under the new zoning, 89 percent of Skamania County outside the national scenic area could be open to industrial development, either as an outright use or with perfunctory administrative review.

“In some cases, these facilities would be allowed in areas also designated for single-family residences, grocery stores and scout camps, with setbacks as narrow as 5 to 15 feet,” said Rebecca Maxey of Underwood.

But county planning director Karen Witherspoon countered that the ordinance actually restricts land uses in rural areas of Skamania County where no restrictions currently exist.

“It’s actually putting zoning on the unzoned land,” she said. “Right now everything is allowed outright. Anything could be applied for.”

And just because a project is allowed under county zoning doesn’t mean it would get a free pass. Each project would be subject to further review under the State Environmental Policy Act, Witherspoon said.

“It would have to go through the SEPA process, and typically a large site-specific project would require an environmental impact statement,” she said.

Simplifying the process

Spadaro said the ordinance will help potential energy developers by eliminating one step in the siting and permitting process.

“Without zoning like this, you would have to get a conditional-use permit first to determine where it is appropriate for wind energy to be sited,” he said.

The Saddleback Wind Project would qualify under the proposed zoning ordinance, Spadaro said. It would meet the state’s minimum setback standard, which requires that wind turbines be sited no closer to residential lots than four times the turbine height or 2,500 feet.

The realities of the market also will limit the number of wind projects built in Skamania County, he said.

“You have to have a connection to the transmission line, you have to have road access to the property, you have to have a windy site, and you have to have willing landowners,” he said.

By Kathie Durbin
Columbian staff writer

The Columbian

8 July 2008