A ridgetop research tower program that could pave the way for a commercial windmill farm north of Dillon Beach is moving ahead.
A county zoning official approved permits enabling NextEra Energy Inc. to proceed with plans to erect two 197-foot-tall towers festooned with orange balls to alert aircraft, meteorological testing gear, a solar power panel and electronic devices to wirelessly transmit data for offsite analysis.
The move came despite warnings about bird slaughter, visual blight and the prospect of commercial wind turbines pocking the skyline as a parade of environmental and wildlife advocates expressed varying views.
Zoning Administrator Johanna Patri, noting her use permit decision was limited to the research towers and not the possibility of a future windmill network, fine-tuned a staff report recommending approval and issued a number of conditions, even specifying what the rules already require: “Any future wind energy conversion proposal will be subject to a county permit process.”
She said that because 12 guy wires that will steady each tower are a hazard to wildlife, a bird monitoring report must be submitted every six months, and added the towers may be taken down if there are significant wildlife impacts. In any event, the towers must come down within three years unless another permit is issued, she said.
NextEra, a $15 billion energy company based in Florida with 15,000 employees in 28 states and Canada, wants to determine if there is enough wind to make a commercial energy operation worthwhile. NextEra operates more than 9,000 windmills on 77 wind farms across the nation and Canada.
Cliff Graham, NextEra’s project manager of the Marin venture, said the company uses galvanized steel tube “industry standard” research towers across the country, and said ridgetop wind measurements are needed to get a clear picture of conditions. Guy wires holding the structures will be marked every 15 feet with “bird diverters” or devices birds can see, he said.
Although four orange balls will protrude from the towers, making visibility from aircraft easier, the Federal Aviation Administration may require lights atop the structures. Still, the towers would be relatively unobtrusive, officials said.
Speakers took aim at the research towers from varying angles, most urging restrictions, some urging the proposal be rejected outright.
William Shook, chief of project planning at Point Reyes National Seashore, worried about visual blight and underscored concerns raised in a letter from his boss, park Superintendent Cecily Muldoon, about the “long-term aesthetic quality of the relatively undeveloped Marin coastline adjacent to the national seashore and legislated wilderness.”
Shook said federal park officials were surprised to read about the project this week in the Independent Journal, a concern shared by the Marin Conservation League, which said the first public notice of the project came last week – even though NextEra approached the county about it a year ago. Roger Roberts of the league also questioned ridgeline development, bird hazard and related aspects of the program.
Marin Audubon’s Barbara Salzman said the project could be an avian killer. “The problem is the birds can’t see these thin wires at night or in bad weather,” she said, noting the towers will rise in the middle of “an important migratory corridor.”
“This is about industry!” asserted Kit McSweeney of Berkeley. “This is about greed!”
“If you allow energy companies to get a foothold É before you know it, you’ll be fighting them in court,” added Helen Kozoriz of Oakland.
But David Jablons, an owner of one of the parcels on which testing towers will rise, said developing sustainable energy is key. “It is critical we think about how we supply our energy,” he said.
One tower would be erected on a ridge on a 157-acre parcel owned by Jablons and Tamara Hicks at 5488 Middle Road. Dillon Beach is about 1.5 miles southwest of the site. Another would be on a ridgetop on a 291-acre parcel owned by Diane Gregory and Francis Cornett at 2640 Whitaker Bluff Road. Dillon Beach is about three miles southwest of the site.
“The proposed project is generally consistent with the goals and policies of the Marin Countywide Plan, which encourages the development of local renewable energy resources,” a staff report said. “The proposed project would help assess the viability of wind energy É a key step in efforts to provide local sources of energy.”
Patri said she was unable to order the private company to share its data with the Marin Energy Authority, as the planning staff recommended. Approval of the project may be appealed to the Planning Commission by Sept. 2.
NextEra, listed in the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol NEE, is the nation’s largest generator of wind and sun power.
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