Quaint little Union, spitting distance from northeast Oregon’s spectacular Eagle Cap Wilderness, hasn’t changed much since horseback desperadoes tried to rob the town bank in 1900.
Victorian and Queen Anne homes dressed in gingerbread and stained glass line the streets. The red-brick City Hall presides over Main Street, as it has for nearly 120 years. R.J. Middleton, a former city councilor, can watch elk and mule deer from his breakfast nook window.
The railroad bypassed Union in 1884, and Interstate 84 detoured around in the 1950s. The town permanently lost the Union County seat to La Grande in 1905; some locals still insist that cowboys and gold miners, plied with all the whiskey they could drink, threw the election.
But now the 21st century has suddenly arrived on Union’s doorstep, and the town finds itself at ground zero of what could become the state’s next big environmental battle: wind farms.
A Texas company has proposed building a wind project across 47,000 acres on the slopes that overlook two sides of town. Plans for the Antelope Ridge Wind Power Project call for 182 turbines, some within 1 1/2 miles of the town center. With blades fully upright, towers would be as tall as 520 feet – 24 feet shy of Oregon’s tallest building, the Wells Fargo tower in Portland.
Union – fearing spoiled views, damage to wildlife habitat and other problems – rolled up its sleeves for a fight. The City Council declared its opposition to the project in December, and a hastily formed group papered the town with “Say NO” posters.
With that, the town joined the state’s first serious rumblings against wind power, including resistance to projects in the Columbia River Gorge and at Steens Mountain.
Sue Oliver, a spokeswoman in Hermiston for the Oregon Department of Energy, acknowledges that Oregonians value both green power and residents’ desire to preserve unfettered views and wildlife habitat.
“We are about to have a clash of two things very important to the state of Oregon,” she said.
Chuck LeBold, a Union resident and retired U.S. Forest Service timber sale planner, puts the conflict in starker terms: “It reminds me of the old timber wars of the 1970s.”
Pockets of resistance
Opposition to wind energy bears no shortage of irony. Unlike in previous environmental showdowns, both sides claim the moral high ground on protecting the planet – clean energy versus untrammeled landscapes.
And since the inaugural Vansycle Ridge Wind Farm fired up in Umatilla County in 1998, Oregon has embraced the technology as a source of renewable energy and jobs. The state has spent tens of millions of dollars as part of its Business Energy Tax Credit program to attract wind developers.
As a result, Oregon now has nearly 1,200 wind turbines on more than a dozen wind farms, producing 1,758 megawatts. That ranks it sixth in the nation in wind-energy production, behind Texas, Iowa, California, Washington and Minnesota, said Christine Real de Azua of the American Wind Energy Association in Washington, D.C.
“The state is doing a very good job in terms of tapping its wind resources,” Real de Azua said.
An additional 23 projects, including Antelope Ridge, are far enough along in planning stages to be tracked by the Renewable Northwest Project, a Portland-based coalition of companies and groups that promotes renewable energy.
Organized resistance began to emerge, though, after Massachusetts-based First Wind sought state permission in 2007 for a 40-turbine project between The Dalles and Mosier. Residents protested that the 260-foot turbines would mar Columbia River Gorge views and endanger migrating birds. First Wind withdrew the plan in January 2009.
In the summer of 2008, a group called the Blue Mountain Alliance gathered 600 signatures as part of an effort to ban wind turbines on 200,000 acres of northeast Oregon’s Blue Mountains. A few months later, the Milton-Freewater City Council proclaimed its desire to keep turbines out of the town’s “viewshed” along the west face of the Blues.
“It is the issue of too many, too soon, without any plan,” said alliance spokesman Richard Jolly.
Near Boardman, residents are turning to the state’s noise regulations to try to control turbines at the year-old Willow Creek Wind Energy Project. Homeowners say the low-frequency roar robs them of sleep.
“I guarantee most of you couldn’t handle what we are going through,” Dan Williams told Morrow County planning officials at a meeting in January. His attorney, Tim McCandlish, proposed that some turbines be shut down at night.
Two groups, meanwhile, are trying to block three wind farms planned for the north flank of Steens Mountain in the state’s southeast corner.
The Oregon Natural Desert Association and Audubon Society of Portland object to installing turbines on a state icon. They also worry about damage to wildlife, including the sage grouse, which is being considered for federal protection as an endangered species.
“The reality is, we are putting turbines up at an unprecedented pace and putting them in places that nobody ever imagined they would ever be,” said Bob Sallinger, the Portland Audubon Society’s conservation director. “Just because you have a wind resource in a given spot doesn’t mean it’s an appropriate place to put turbines.”
Concerns in Union
In Union, a town of about 1,900 nestled in the southern dip of the Grande Ronde Valley, residents fear that the $600 million Antelope Ridge project will destroy their serene way of life with a forest of wind turbines churning and blinking at all hours.
“Instead of the Grande Ronde Valley, we are going to be known as windmill alley,” said Middleton, the former city councilor.
Residents chose to live in Union “because of our surroundings, the richness of the character of the valley,” said City Administrator Sandra Patterson. Her ancestors arrived in Union in the 1880s, she said, but “they might not have stayed if there were windmills.”
As word of the wind project spread, businessman Dennis Wilkinson of nearby Cove organized an opposition group this winter. The group had 160 members even before it chose a name – the Friends of Grande Ronde Valley – on Feb. 4.
Wilkinson said mountainsides bristling with turbines would turn away visitors, hurting a $106 million tourism industry that employs a combined 1,530 workers in Union, Baker and Wallowa counties.
Residents also worry that turbine noise could damage their health, and that turbines will harm habitat for elk, deer, raptors and sage grouse. They also see the project as an intrusion by outsiders – the developer, Horizon Wind Energy of Houston, is a subsidiary of EDP Renováveis of Portugal, one of the biggest wind energy producers on the planet.
And they object to state subsidies for wind projects. Bob Applegate, a Horizon Wind consultant, confirmed that the company has applied for state tax credits for the project.
The Union City Council has demanded that Horizon pay for a years-long study of the wind farm’s potential effects on residents’ health, property values, tourism revenues, economics and scenery. Horizon hasn’t responded. Two town meetings on the project are set for this month, one to be attended by state Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner.
“An important project”
None of this rattles Arlo Corwin, Horizon’s director of development, however.
The Antelope project, planned for privately owned land, would bring 165 jobs to Union County during nine to 12 months of construction, which could start as early as next year. After that, the wind farm would employ 20 maintenance workers and fuel 32 related jobs, Corwin said, and dramatically boost the county’s tax base. At 300 megawatts, it would produce enough power for about 90,000 homes.
“This is an important project to the county and local economic development,” Corwin said simply. “It’s also an important project for wind energy in Oregon.”
In addition, the project doesn’t need the city’s or county’s approval. Like all proposed wind farms of 105 megawatts or more, Antelope is being evaluated by the state-level Energy Facility Siting Council.
Lori Brogoitti of Pendleton, serving a second term on the council, said she’s listened to objections to putting wind farms on mountains but also knows of landowners who need the lucrative lease payments turbines bring.
Oliver, the Department of Energy spokeswoman, said the conflict could push the state to change its siting standards. Now, only designated scenic areas get special consideration for damage to views.
John Audley of the Renewable Northwest Project said the U.S. is better off generating its own energy and that renewable energy is better than fossil fuels. Plus, he noted, La Grande recently lost its Boise Cascade sawmill, where many Union residents worked.
“How are those folks going to put food on the table and houses over their heads unless something else comes in to take its place?” he asked.
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