As the mammoth Shepherd’s Flat wind farm makes a growing commotion on the hills above the Willow Creek valley, several residents are packing up or already gone.
“I told them I wouldn’t sign any noise easement unless they bought me out,” said Richard Goodhead, who retired with his wife, Joanne, to a 106-acre farm in the valley in 1997.
At first, Goodhead said, Patricia Pilz a representative from Caithness Energy – the company building Shepherd’s Flat – refused his proposal. She hoped he would take a $5,000 check and sign a noise waiver like some of his neighbors.
“She said, ‘We’re not in the real estate business,’” Goodhead said. “I said, fine – I’m not in the windmill business.”
A month and several negotiations later, the company changed its tune. The Goodheads signed a final purchase agreement this week with the New York-based company, selling their land and home for $800,000.
The Goodheads made a killing, according to the Gilliam County assessor’s office. A clerk reported their manufactured home and farm has a real market value of $167,110.
No Caithness representative, including Pilz, responded to the East Oregonian’s repeated phone calls for this story. However, Pilz told a New York Times reporter last summer that Caithness does not change the “market price” for a noise waiver, because that would be unfair. The Goodheads tell a different story; they say Caithness offered them several deals before it caved to their request for a buyout. One was $6,000 every year for about 20 years, another was the proceeds from one nearby turbine. All the offers required the Goodheads to sign a waiver allowing noise levels of up to 50 adjusted decibels at their residence.
Fifty adjusted decibels, or 50 dBA, is about the sound of a normal conversation in a room. Oregon’s industrial noise ordinance caps the allowable decibels for a wind farm at nearby residences at 36 dBa or 10 dBA above a measured ambient noise level.
The company that owns the wind farm to the south of Shepherd’s Flat, Invenergy, and its neighbors have fought over the noise rule for several months. The county planning commission heard hours of testimony and both parties appealed its decision to the county court twice. The issue still isn’t resolved; the next hearing will be sometime in January.
By buying noise easements, Caithness hopes to avoid a similar dispute. But the Goodheads are among those who don’t want to live next to a wind farm for any price. Joanne Goodhead pointed out that the jury is still out on the health effects of turbines. The Oregon Public Health Office recently held “listening sessions” around the state to hear residents’ concerns. The wind industry maintains that turbines are perfectly safe.
The Goodheads also wonder what will become of the valley’s wildlife. The area’s antelope population has noticeably declined since the Willow Creek wind farm came, they said. And a curlew nesting area will soon be surrounded by turbines.
“Everyone is rolling over and playing dead for (the wind companies), it’s amazing,” Joanne Goodhead said. “Anything that’s quoted as ‘green’ is OK, whether it is or not.”
The other side of the story, of course, is how profitable Shepherd’s Flat will be for landowners and the county. Now a growing network of roads and concrete slabs, Shepherd’s Flat is already providing much-needed employment for an area suffering from the recession. During the construction phase, it will employ an average of 500 people. Upon completion, 35 will work at the farm full-time.
Once its 338 turbines are up and running, Shepherd’s Flat will begin paying property taxes. According to its tax arrangement with counties, called a strategic investment plan, it will pay more than $5 million to Gilliam County and more than $2 million to Morrow County every year for the next 15 years.
Thanks to Shepherd’s Flat, a handful of landowners will retire in style. Industry insiders say they are paid up to $15,000 per turbine per year.
Other neighbors of Shepherd’s Flat who have sold their homes are Clyde and Alicia Smith and Arman and Sandra Kluehe. The Kluehes got less than they feel their home was worth, but they’re not complaining. They learned of Shepherd’s Flat shortly after relocating from the Willamette Valley and never relished the thought of living across a narrow valley from a forest of turbines. When Pilz offered them the $5,000, they turned her down.
The Kluehes put their house on the market, but after months of no bites, they grew resigned. They continued to upgrade their home, installing a pellet stove and a sprinkler system for their new trees. They painted the house’s trim. The painter was just finishing up one day when their real estate agent called. He said a buyer was ready to pay full price, cash, for the Kluehe’s house.
They wavered for a moment – they had just invested nearly $20,000 – but the agent said they could not back down or the buyer could sue.
“I just looked at my husband and said, ‘We don’t really have an option,’” Sandra Kluehe remembered. “We had five weeks, maybe six, to find a house and get out. It was very stressful.”
The buyer was a Portland-based lawyer. A quick dig on the Internet revealed the lawyer worked for Caithness. Sandra Kluehe found out later the purchaser was actually a local landowner involved in the wind farm.
The Kluehes now live in Redmond, near Smith Rock State Park, where no wind turbines are allowed.
“It feels like a burden has been lifted from our shoulders,” Arman Kluehe said. “There’s like an oppression in that valley.”
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