Environmentalists worried that two ridgetop windmill research towers proposed north of Dillon Beach could trigger a bird slaughter triumphed Monday as county planners called for more study.
But the victory could be short-lived as officials representing a wind energy firm said they intend to appeal to the Board of Supervisors.
The county Planning Commission, in a 5-2 vote that flew in the face of a planning staff recommendation and zoning hearing officer decision, required an “initial study” or environmental review of a research tower plan that could lead to a windmill farm.
“We intend to appeal,” said Cliff Graham, project director of NextEra Energy Inc.’s proposal to erect two 197-foot-tall towers festooned with meteorological testing gear, a solar panel, electronic devices to transmit data, and four orange balls to alert aircraft.
Commissioners bowed to fears about bird slaughter, although none had read studies of other tower sites indicating bird death was not significant. The studies apparently were not forwarded to the panel for review.
As proposed, a detailed bird and bat study would be done after the towers go up, with the county reserving the right to halt the project if too many birds were killed. The commission majority said that wasn’t enough, adding that “protocols” of how such monitoring would be done, and when, should be developed. Officials noted that 127 bird species dwell nearby in the Estero de San Antonio and Stemple Creek.
Commission Chairwoman Katherine Crecelius and Commissioner Don Dickenson cast dissenting votes, saying the only way to get a handle on bird impacts was to erect the towers as proposed, then proceed with careful monitoring to assess avian life. Dickenson said he was convinced the two towers would have minimal impact, and Crecelius added that studying the impact on birds before the towers are up didn’t make sense. “I’m not sure what we’re going to learn,” she said.
Most commissioners said they would be more comfortable with more information. “I want to see the data that allows us to make an educated decision,” said Commissioner Randy Greenberg.
NextEra attorney Michael J. Burke argued that no one had provided any evidence that there was significant environmental impact associated with the plan that required further study. He noted a detailed report recommending approval of the project by the planning staff.
Many in a parade of speakers called for more study, some urged planners to pull the plug without further ado, and several – citing global warming – urged officials to proceed full-speed ahead.
Six individuals and representatives of groups including the Marin Conservation League, Marin Audubon Society and West Marin Environmental Action Committee appealed zoning officer approval of the research tower plan, balking at a staff finding that no environmental analysis was needed. The staff had noted that although 12 guy wires that would steady each tower would be a hazard to wildlife, a bird monitoring report would be submitted every six months, and the towers would be taken down if there were significant impacts. In any event, the towers would come down within three years.
Barbara Salzman of Marin Audubon said more study is needed to determine if the program is simply too bad for birds. “All towers kill birds,” she said, adding that in this case, “our goal is to make sure we have adequate environmental review.”
Nona Dennis of Marin Conservation League agreed, saying, “It doesn’t pass the sniff test … to say their is no potential for some impact.”
Other speakers noted the ridgetop locale of the tower sites and warned of visual blight. “A 197-foot tower on the ridgeline in a coastal zone would be a sight to behold,” noted Lisbeth Koelker of Tomales.
Several speakers, noting global warming could kill people, as well as birds, urged officials to proceed with the plan as soon as possible.
“Move ahead with all deliberative speed,” advised Edward Mainland, chairman of Sierra Club’s California energy and climate committee.
“We can study this to death,” said Bob Spofford of San Rafael. “We’ve already frittered away 30 years on global warming and haven’t done zip.”
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.
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.
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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