May 27, 2011

Plan for giant turbines near I-10 exit in Palm Springs generating controversy

Written by K Kaufmann, 27 May 2011

A site off Interstate 10 soon could host two massive wind turbines that generate enough electricity to power 2,000 homes and dwarf the Inland Empire’s tallest building.

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians recently announced the wind farm, planned for 83 acres of tribal land at the juncture of Highway 111 and I-10.

With their blades at the high-noon position, the two 265-foot-tall turbines would top out at 451 feet, according to a notice the tribe released May 18 as part of its environmental process for the wind farm.

When turning, the blades would create a circle with a diameter of 377 feet, the notice said.

While some people view the windmills as an iconic gateway to the Coachella Valley for tourists, others such as Les Starks deem them too large.

“It’s going to change the whole landscape,” said Starks, a resident of Snow Creek, the tiny community of 39 homes located across from the project site on the west side of Highway 111.

“What it really is going to change is the first impression of the desert (visitors get) when they get off the freeway because it’s going to be towering over their heads. It will be like driving into an industrial slum.”

The nearest landmark on I-10, the Morongo Casino, Resort & Spa in Cabazon, is 340 feet high and the tallest buildings in the Inland Empire.

Starks likened the proposed wind farm to the failed plan to put a Riverside County jail in Whitewater off I-10, which the Board of Supervisors recently abandoned after concerted opposition from valley tourism officials.

But Fred Bell, chief operating officer of Noble Renewables in Palm Desert, which is partnering with the tribe on the project, countered that wind turbines have long been a part of the view for drivers coming into Palm Springs on I-10 and Highway 111.

Turbines as tall as the Vestas V90s, the model to be used for the tribe’s project, already operate on private land on Whitewater Hill, he said.

He also noted that the Whitewater Ranch site slopes down below the grade of the highways on either side of it.

“There is going to be visual impact,” Bell said. “We’ll create computer simulations” for the environmental assessment.

Scott White, president of the Palm Springs Desert Resorts Convention and Visitors Authority, was not familiar with the project but described the windmills in the pass as “iconic.”

“A lot of different people say that when they finally see the windmills, that’s when they’ve left L.A., and they’ve arrived in Palm Springs,” he said.

With the project still in the early planning stages, Bell said he could not provide details on the exact location of the turbines, how many jobs the project might create or where the power generated might go.

The Agua Caliente also are not commenting on the wind farm at this time. Save for presentations earlier this month before the Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy and the Palm Springs City Council, tribal officials have kept the project pretty much under wraps.

“They were pretty general in their presentation,” Palm Springs Mayor Pro Tem Lee Weigel said. “I don’t think they discussed the height at all.”

Weigel supports the project, but said, “I would have to have more information on the positives and negatives.”

The Mountains Conservancy board did raise some questions about the project’s possible impact on wildlife migration corridors that cross I-10.

“The one thing I saw is issues regarding wildlife compatibility with songbirds and raptors and bats,” said board member Buford Crites. “That’s right in the middle of a migratory bird path.”

Environmental assessments for tribal projects such as the wind farm are done under the Agua Caliente’s Tribal Environmental Policy Act, or TEPA. Under the law, the tribe conducts an environmental assessment and releases a report. No other city or county approvals are required.

The recent notice announcing the project was the first step in the approval process, asking for input from federal, state and local agencies, said tribal spokesman Alva Johnson.

“The public will have a chance to comment on the environmental document during a 30-day public review period in the fall,” he said.

The Mountains Conservancy will not likely take a position on the project because it is on tribal land, said Bill Havert, the group’s outgoing executive director.

But he said, “It’s one of those things people are going to have to wrestle with.

“When you do come into that gateway area, you do see turbines. What are the appropriate limits?”

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