The Umatilla County Planning Commission is having to weigh public good versus private interest – a balance that is especially tricky with the emerging wind industry in Oregon.
Since December of last year, the Umatilla County Planning Department and planning commissioners Clinton Reeder and Rick Colgan have been working to make changes to the policy for siting wind farms.
The county gives the go-ahead to wind farms smaller than 105 megawatts. Anything larger is permitted by the state.
In the past two years, groups such as the Milton-Freewater-area Blue Mountain Alliance have raised questions over where wind turbines should be allowed.
Reeder said wind development has been an evolving issue. When the first wind farms came to Umatilla County a decade ago, they used smaller turbines and were out of sight. That isn’t the case today.
“This is chapter two, or three or four in the process,” he said. “The further along we get, the more we run into the issue of public interests as opposed to private property interests.”
The viewshed, particularly the view of the Blue Mountains, has been a big issue – one the county isn’t particularly addressing in these rules.
It is, however, addressing lots of other points.
Setbacks for wind turbines are another stickler.
The rule changes propose a distance of 3,520 feet from residential zones (such as a town or neighborhood), a half mile (2,640 feet) from a house (such as a farm house), and two times the total tower’s height, from base to blade tip, from any roads.
This sparked debate, which is reflected in the comments sections of one version of the proposed rule changes.
Blue Mountain Alliance wanted a mile buffer between wind turbines and anything else, including homes and roads.
Another sticking point is what happens to the turbines if the wind industry goes bust or when the turbines are no longer used.
The county already required a bond from wind companies: a bundle of money set aside to tear the turbines down and restore the land to its original condition. That way taxpayers won’t have to foot the bill, Reeder said.
One change in the rules will require wind companies to update the decommission cost estimate every three years (rather than five years, as it has been). Also, if any major changes are made, the planning commission wants a new estimate within four months.
There are many other changes being proposed, such as adding “wildlife and fish” to environmental monitoring plans. Others add to the siting process, such as requiring a pre-application meeting between the wind companies, landowners and the county planning department.
On Thursday, the planning commission will pore over the proposed rule changes, which is likely to take several hours.
And while it is looking at these changes, Reeder said, the planning commission is still weighing that private/public balance.
He called the process “quasi-judicial.” He said the planning commission is doing its best to have some flexibility and transparency, while not losing efficiency in the planning process.
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