Morrow County planning commissioners will take another look at their decision to give the Willow Creek wind project six months to comply with state noise standards.
Both sides of the issue – Invenergy, the company that owns the wind project, and the neighbors who say it is too loud – appealed the commission’s May 28 decision to the county court. Among other complaints, all parties said commissioners failed to explain their decision or say who would prove the project was in compliance after six months.
“We all agree the planning commission needs to put more meat on its findings,” said County Judge Terry Tallman.
An Invenergy lawyer, Jeffrey Condit, and the group of neighbors attended a special meeting of the county court in Heppner Wednesday to address the issue. It was a short meeting; the court agreed it was not qualified to resolve the conflict, only to remand it back to the planning commission.
“I like the idea that you have a body of nine individuals who can potentially see more of the problems and solutions than the three of us could,” said Commissioner Leann Rea.
In the remand order, the court allowed the planning commission to change or overturn its findings. “They need the flexibility to make the decision they want to make,” Rae said.
The court’s move is the latest in a conflict that began almost two years ago, when the neighbors first became concerned the turbines in the 72-megawatt project were too close to their homes. When the turbines began to turn, they said they had trouble sleeping and suffered symptoms such as nausea, anxiety and vertigo. They are convinced the symptoms arise from turbine-generated noise and vibrations.
The neighbors and their noise expert say the project routinely violates the state noise standard of 36 adjusted decibels, or dBA, at their homes. Invenergy acknowledges the turbines produce more than 36 dBA at nearby homes, by as much as 10 percent of the time the turbines are spinning. But it claims that such cases are allowed because the standard rises when background noise increases.
Invenergy further argues that, even if it does break the standard, such violations are “unusual and/or infrequent events,” which qualify for an exception under the rule.
The agency that wrote the rule, the Department of Environmental Quality, no longer enforces it. That job has fallen to local bodies such as the Morrow County Planning Commission, which is now between a rock – the suffering neighbors – and the hard place of a multi-million-dollar tax-paying project.
Planning Director Carla McLane said the noise issue has prompted some soul-searching among the planning commission. At its last meeting, it discussed the permitting process and considered adding new questions around noise, vibration, air pollution and other environmental considerations before green-lighting renewable energy projects.
“It’s being better about what questions to ask and when to ask them,” McLane said.
The planning commission will reconsider the Willow Creek wind project noise issue at an evening meeting August 31 at Heppner City Hall.
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