September 12, 2010

Winds of change sweep eastern Idaho; County governments reel as wind power issues proliferate

By EMMA BREYSSE, Post Register, 12 September 2010

When you’re running the planning process for an entire eastern Idaho county, the name of the game is balance.

In the increasingly contentious process of approving and regulating wind farms, finding that balance has grown challenging for officials from Bingham and Bonneville counties. Those two counties, as the only eastern Idaho counties to see commercial wind turbine construction in the past five years, have been squarely at center stage for the debate about whether to approve wind farms in the area.

“Refining an ordinance is not a science,” Bonneville County Planning Director Steve Serr said. “It’s impossible to be everything to everyone. It’s a balancing act between personal rights and more public rights.”

More than most people, Serr knows how true that is. With one appeal from Seattle-based Ridgeline Energy in the works and a number of residents clamoring for a moratorium on all county wind development, he has seen firsthand what can happen when an ordinance allows for a controversial land use.

“What’s especially difficult to balance with this particular issue is that a lot of the community concern seems to be for their views, for the skyline,” he said. “From the standpoint of drafting a law, you can’t really own a view. When you buy a piece of property you don’t have any rights to a view. But it’s still a community concern.”

Fellow planning administrator Melodie Halstead of Bingham County is in the middle of a similar debate. Halstead, for more than four years, has been in the process of updating Bingham County’s zoning ordinance to include regulations for wind turbines.

“We’ll take as long as we need to make sure the people are heard and served,” she said. “We realized this was an issue we needed to address and we want to make sure we address it right.”

Halstead has attended several public hearings as the county deliberates it new zoning ordinance, now in its 14th draft.

“Yes, it would be nice to have these rules to go forward with,” she said. “We have business that is waiting on that approval, but if we don’t have that balance, there will be a lot more problems down the road.”

Another issue is that wind turbines bring in tax revenue for both Bingham and Bonneville counties.

“It goes to a lot of organizations within a tax-levy district, but we see some,” Bonneville County Treasurer Mark Hansen said.

Bingham County Treasurer Janice Lawes said she believes that in the current economy, the chance to earn revenue without taking it from local residents is an under-appreciated opportunity. Wind development in Bingham County has not been as extensive as in Bonneville County, but Chicago-based Wolverine Creek Energy paid $75,000 in taxes in 2010, about $36,000 of which went to the county.

“With these difficult economic times, the county and the other taxing district entities are really in need of that money,” Lawes said. “I’m not involved in the planning and zoning stuff, but I do see this side of it very clearly.”

Tax revenues from wind turbines also benefit the Firth School District and North Bingham Library, along with two or three other organizations, Lawes said.

In Bonneville County, the tax revenues from wind turbines reached $166,000 for 2010, Hansen said, though he said he was not certain enough of the county’s percentage of that money. Since 2007, wind turbines have been taxed according to a percentage of revenue produced by the turbines, rather than by the value of the equipment, Hansen said.

Both treasurers agree that it all comes down, once again, to balance.

“It’s a matter of people having their opinion and being able to follow the processes in the laws and whether those opinions are in everyone’s best interest,” Lawes said. “There’s a lot of things to think about.”

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