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Willow Creek told it must quiet down

A reluctant Morrow County Planning Commission finally spelled it out for Invenergy, the developer of the Willow Creek Wind Project: not only is the project too loud for nearby homes, but Invenergy will be paying for another noise study once its six-month grace period is up.

The 72-megawatt project and four of its neighbors in the Willow Creek Valley north of Ione have been locked in a struggle over noise since before the turbines began turning in late 2008.

After many hours of testimony, the planning commission ruled in May that the project did break the state noise standard, and gave the Chicago-based company six months to comply.

Both parties appealed the decision to the Morrow County Court. The court agreed the planning commission’s decision lacked meat on its bones; it didn’t detail why, or say who was to determine that Willow Creek was in compliance.

At a meeting Tuesday night, commissioners found consensus on several important points. First, they said, the evidence presented by Invenergy’s – and the neighbors’ – noise experts indicated the project broke the state noise rule at nearby homes. The rule states that a wind facility must not increase the ambient background noise of 10 adjusted decibels, or 10 dBA. If a developer does not determine the ambient noise prior to building the facility, there is an assumed ambient of 26 dBA. That means a wind facility that chooses the assumed ambient can generate only 36 dBA at nearby homes.

The commission briefly discussed the percentage of time a facility should be allowed to break the rule, a major point of contention with the two acoustical experts who earlier testified. But Vice-Chair Jeff Wenholz put such quibbling to rest. The developer chose to take the assumed background level, he said, and the noise rule is the noise rule.

“It’s no different than if the speed limit is 65 (mph),” he said. “The cop can write you a ticket for 66.”

The commission next decided that granting Invenergy six months to fix the problem was reasonable, although Pam Docken initially disagreed, saying Willow Creek has already been operating – and breaking the rule – long enough.

“Do you think six months is just flat too long?” asked Chair David Sykes.

“Yes, but I think I’m a solo act here,” Docken replied.

She was right. Eventually she and the group decided Invenergy needs time to adjust. It can finish adjusting sooner than six months, they said, but it must be done when the time is up.

County Counsel Ryan Swinburnson questioned whether Willow Creek should be allowed to run during the six months. The commission agreed it could.

Unlike at previous meetings on the topic, only a handful of people attended, the six neighbors and two Invenergy representatives. Mike Collins, an Invenergy asset manager, said he could not immediately comment on the commission’s decision.

One of the neighbors, Mike Eaton, said he felt numb.

“It’s just a process that we’re in,” he said. “I think the planning commission had a really tough job on their hands.”

Dave Mingo, another neighbor, said Invenergy could fix the problem “in a day,” with an acceptable easement payment. Invenergy made offers to the neighbors shortly after they first complained. All four – two of the neighbors are couples – turned the company down, saying the amount was too small.

The planning commission’s decision vindicated the neighbors’ claims, doggedly expressed for almost two years. But the acknowledged fact – voiced even by commissioners – was that Invenergy would appeal their decision.

“We feel it’s going in the right direction,” Mingo said. “I don’t feel it’s over, by any means.” The planning commission will finalize its decision Oct. 26 at 7 p.m. at Heppner City Hall.