Those seeking to develop commercial-sized wind farms in Kittitas County can choose from two local government paths.
One involves putting a wind farm inside the county’s 500-square-mile wind-power overlay zone in the east part of the county. The other is to put the project outside the zone.
Proposals outside the wind overlay zone are examined by the county Planning Commission and county commissioners in public hearings. They can only be filed for once a year.
Projects inside the overlay zone require public hearings only before the county commissioners and can be filed for anytime of the year.
They’re similar, but have differences, according to Dan Valoff, planner with the county Community Development Services.
“The differences can be seen as simple, yet what has to be done is complex,” Valoff said.
Outside the zone
If a project is sought at a rural site outside the wind-power overlay zone, the effort begins by filing for a change in the county’s comprehensive land-use plan and development regulations.
Such a change can only be filed for once a year, before a June 30 deadline, and the county usually makes a decision on these changes by the end of that year. This is the county’s annual comprehensive plan amendment process.
The application can entail the creation of an additional wind-power overlay zone, which is the case in the Columbia Plateau Energy Facility LLC proposal, or it can be both the creation of a zone and a specific wind farm project to go in the zone.
Once the application has been received and filed with the county, it is examined to make sure it is adequate.
If deemed complete, it becomes a proposed amendment to the plan. Specifically, it changes the county development regulations and zoning code to add text that creates an area designated as a wind-power overlay zone at a specific site.
The State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) requires the county to assess the environmental impact of the zone creation or both the zoning and a specific project.
The county then declares the level of probable environmental impact on both aspects, called a threshold decision, which can require conditions the applicant must meet to offset the impacts.
When a site-specific wind farm project also is involved, the applicant and county staff form a draft development agreement that outlines in detail all requirements, rules, deadlines, studies and conditions the wind-power developer must meet in constructing, operating and decommissioning a wind farm when it halts operations.
This includes a number of studies to assess the visual impact of a wind farm and the effect on wildlife, plant life and other aspects of the environment.
The county Planning Commission conducts a public review of one, or both aspects, and makes recommendations to the county commissioners. The Planning Commission’s decisions are advisory to the three county commissioners, who make the final decision.
The proposal and recommendation, whether only a zone creation or also with a site-specific project, then go to county commissioners for their consideration through public hearings followed by a final vote.
In the zone
If an application involves a project in the wind-power overlay zone, the same steps apply, minus a public hearing before the Planning Commission.
The existing wind-power overlay zone, created in 2007, is a pre-identified area of the county where it’s been determined wind farms are more compatible with the ongoing land-use trends located there.
Although some environmental studies have been carried out within in the zone related to existing wind farms, a wind-power developer must carry out several studies and form plans to address environmental concerns related to the specific site, working with the public, state, federal and local agencies, the Yakama Nation and other local governments.
A third pathway: The state
Wind-power developers eyeing potential Kittitas County sites for wind farms have another pathway to gain project approval: through state government.
It involves filing a site-specific wind farm proposal, along with environmental studies, maps and a proposed site certification (development) agreement with the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, or EFSEC.
The state council, using an exacting and detailed quasi-judicial process, is envisioned by state government as a one-stop location for review and approval of power-generation projects with statewide power needs in mind.
Although EFSEC requires an applicant to attempt to iron out a project’s land-use conflicts with local governments, namely counties, the council can move to override a county’s objections to approve a project, adding conditions that must be met to address local government concerns.
EFSEC makes a recommendation to the governor who makes the final decision.