The debate over windmills in the foothills is tricky. Everyone feels like they own a piece of Idaho Falls’ skyline. And yet some folks do own the land up there. In order to make a living, and in some cases stay on the land, they need the rent being paid by companies that harness wind and sell the power it produces on the open market.
The question, moving forward, is how do we respect their property rights while making sure that the interests of the community are represented?
There is no easy answer, as evidenced by Bingham County’s struggles to draft a wind ordinance everyone can live with.
Nearly 100 wind turbines have been built in accordance with the current ordinance and hundreds more have been approved. But, we’ve clearly reached a tipping point. The Bonneville County Planning & Zoning Commission’s decision to deny Ridgeline Energy’s proposal for as many as 75 more turbines in the foothills was a sign that locals want a more balanced approach.
Eastern Idaho is, and will continue to be, a major player in harnessing the wind. That’s reality. Bonneville County residents are fortunate to have a large body of work to draw from as we begin the process of rewriting what is a surprisingly skinny wind ordinance.
So, here’s a few issues that ought to be on the table:
Notification: Anyone living within two miles of a proposed pig farm is made aware of hearings by first-class mail. The same standard should apply to wind farms.
Setbacks: The current county ordinance requires the bare minimum. Essentially, if a turbine falls over it needs to be far enough away that it doesn’t land on adjacent property. Some jurisdictions have created setbacks that involve miles not feet. Can we find a happy medium?
Scenic designations: Where don’t we want turbines? Best to figure that out now. And how much do the turbines impact wildlife?
Property values: Have the turbines impacted the values of homes near them? Those homeowners have property rights as well.
Get the numbers: How much does the county benefit from turbines? Should our legislators seek a bigger piece of the pie? Instead of property taxes, counties receive 3 percent of a wind company’s gross sales. Should we be getting a larger cut?
Idaho has no coal, natural gas or oil, but it does have wind, and much of it is located in the Snake River Plain. Americans need to embrace a diverse energy portfolio. That means harnessing the wind, and doing so in a manner compatible with the priorities of this region. It’s not going to be easy, but it has to be done, and the sooner the better.
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