Umatilla County Planning Commissioner David Lynde leaned back in his chair and looked across the table to wind company representatives sitting before the commission Thursday night.
“This may be just a dumb country boy asking this, but have any of you actually went out and camped by a wind turbine or anything like that?” he said. “I mean, camp by them, and really listen to the noise?”
Those who come to Eastern Oregon to develop big wind projects often aren’t from Eastern Oregon, he pointed out.
“Portland doesn’t have wind turbines,” Lynde said. “You have all these nice, wonderful rules set up by Salem, which doesn’t have wind turbines.”
The Umatilla County Planning Commission was reviewing rules of its own – meant to better handle how and where the commission lets wind power companies set up shop.
Commissioner Clinton Reeder, along with former commissioner Rick Colgan, and county staff have been working on the changes since last December. Thursday night it took two-and-a-half hours to go over the proposed changes, then the commission took another two hours of testimony from the crowd of more than 30 attendees.
The issue that came up again and again mirrored Lynde’s question – how far away is far enough for a wind turbine?
Lynde put Chase Whitney, business developer for Iberdrola Renewables, and Elaine Albrich, attorney with Stoel Rives LLP, on the spot with his question.
But it was Sara Parsons, another Iberdrola business developer who sat in the audience, who provided an answer.
She said while she doesn’t live near a turbine, she does talk to people living near Iberdrola projects.
“I personally don’t know of complaints in our projects operating in Gilliam and Sherman counties,” she said. “As a company we take this very seriously and the best way to find out is to talk to people who live near our operating wind farms.”
But Robin and Cindy Severe, who live in Vansycle Canyon near Helix, had complaints. When wind turbines first came to his countryside, they were peeking up over the horizon, Robin Severe said. Now he can see four big towers from his house. The nearest one is about a mile and a half away. If the wind blows hard, he said, they don’t hear the turbines. But if it is not blowing so hard, they hear the turbines roaring like tractors.
“The little, quiet, rural farm community lifestyle was gone. It’s been gone since the first project went in,” he said. “It’s a distraction. We haven’t gotten used to it yet. I don’t know if we’ll ever get used to it.”
The question of setbacks is a difficult one.
Reeder’s proposed setbacks are as follows: two-thirds of a mile from residential zones, a half mile from a farm house and two times the tower height (blade tip to base) from a road.
Whitney and Albrich referenced state standards for setbacks and asked the county to match those. They said it would provide uniformity in the system. Whitney said the state standard for residential zone setbacks was the same – two-thirds of a mile. Albrich said the state standard setback from a farm house is a quarter of a mile and the standard from a road is 110 percent of the turbine height.
Members of the Blue Mountain Alliance group – which, among other goals, aims to keep wind turbines out of the Blues – wanted a greater setback.
Richard Jolly suggest four miles from any house, though he conceded one to two miles may be more realistic.
Ed Chesnut said he would like to see two to four miles from a house or city.
After a nearly five-hour-long meeting, the commission agreed the discussion was not over. It continued its hearing on the wind farm siting rules. The next time it addresses them, it plans to have a more finished draft of the rules, as well as talking points on subjects like setbacks.
Umatilla County Planning Director Tamra Mabbott said the commission wouldn’t have meeting time available until February or March, although Planning Commission Chairman Gary Rhinhart wanted to do it in January.
Toward the end of the meeting, Cindy Severe spoke to the commission, turning the tables on them much the way Lynde had done to the wind industry representatives earlier on.
Like Lynde, she asked a simple question:
“Who would want a wind turbine a quarter mile from your house?” she asked. “Raise your hand.”
No one did.
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