The final step in a four-year-long process to establish the first industrial wind farm in Whitman County has yet to be taken.
Palouse Wind and its parent company First Wind await a conditional use permit determination to build up to 65 wind turbines on 9,000 acres outside of Oakesdale following 6 1/2 hours of testimony Monday in Colfax.
Hearing examiner Andrew Kottkamp, who was selected in lieu of a board of adjustment to determine whether to issue the company a permit, said he will issue a ruling within 10 business days.
Kottkamp received testimony not only on the company’s CUP application, but also on appeals against it from citizens who filed under the State Environmental Policy Act.
If Kottkamp rules in favor of the appellants, he could, at one extreme, deny Palouse Wind the right to build the turbines, or, at the other extreme, simply change the wording of the environmental impact statement.
If, on the other hand, he rejects the appeals and grants the company a permit, Palouse Wind could break ground on the project as early as this summer.
Aside from the testimony from those who filed the SEPA appeals, most testimony Monday was in support of the wind farm. About 24 people testified in favor of the farm during the CUP hearing while three testified against the project.
Many who supported the project said the construction and maintenance of a wind farm in Whitman County would serve as a saving grace to the rural economy.
“Since the early 1970s we’ve seen businesses leave the town of Oakesdale, and they never come back,” said Oakesdale Mayor Denis Palmer. “When First Wind came to Oakesdale and wanted to put their office there, and when they presented what they were going to do, it was kind of like dollars from heaven dropping in. …”
Ben Fairbanks, director of business development for Palouse Wind, said the project will create about 160 new jobs in the area during construction. Once the project is up and running, the company will hire between five and 10 people for the life of the wind farm. The farm, once operational, will generate about $700,000 annually in tax revenue.
One landowner of 35 who may lease their land to Palouse Wind, said more than anything, the project gives them a chance to keep the family farm.
“My family has farmed this land for over 120 years, and we’ve always tried to be good stewards …” said Cathy Armacost, who lives in Liberty Lake but owns land near Oakesdale.
“With this, we as a family feel that our land will probably continue to be farmed with wheat and lentils and barley for another 120 years.”
Rick Kiesz, one of three who testified against the project during the CUP hearing, said his home and others near the proposed site will lose value because of the turbines. Palouse Wind should give him a residential property value guarantee, he said.
Roger Whitten agreed. Whitten’s house is surrounded by land that Palouse Wind plans to lease for its turbines.
“My property value has been stolen,” he said.
As one of the appellants who testified Monday, Whitten contended that low-frequency noise from wind turbines would harm the health of residents in the county. The county, he said, has ignored this threat to public health in their EIS and has done nothing to mitigate the damage it could cause to residents. Until now, the loudest sounds in the area come from combines harvesting crops.
Palouse Wind’s attorney, Erin Anderson, said Whitten’s claims are nonfactual. The noise emitted from turbines would be no more harmful than the sound of wind, she said.
“Low-frequency noise is everywhere. Low frequency is in the wind … it is the sound of the Earth … it is the noise of the breathing of this planet,” she said.
Whitten was joined during the SEPA appeal hearing by Marcia Wagner, an Oakesdale resident who represented 17 residents who filed an appeal.
In the appeal, Wagner and her partners said the turbines would be detrimental to the avian and bat populations and that Palouse Wind should spend more time researching the native species in the area. The appellants also claim the county’s EIS does not offer adequate alternatives to the wind farm or address potential decreases in property value as a result of the wind farm [ends]
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