November 11, 2011

Swauk Valley wind-overlay expansion approved; 3-5 turbines to go up

By JUSTIN PITTMAN staff writer, Daily Record, 10 November 2011

The developers of a small-scale wind project in Upper Kittitas County say it will fit in with ongoing conservation projects at the Swauk Valley Ranch, and they are working to minimize impacts.

The Kittitas County Commissioners approved a wind-overlay change late last month for the project. The goal is to install three to five turbines on about 40 acres of the 3,856-acre ranch near state Route 10 between Ellensburg and Cle Elum.

Alex Cordas, who represents the three Washington families who own Swauk Valley Ranch, said the ranch has been preparing to put in wind turbines for almost three years.

“We weren’t going in with our eyes closed; we’ve got a number of folks here at the office who are construction professionals,” he said. “It wasn’t until we came upon the fact that we had dotted a lot of i’s, crossed a lot of t’s, that we decided in June to proceed with the change (application).”

Cordas said the ranch owners tried to do their best to lessen the impacts on surrounding land owners, though he admitted turbines might affect some views from nearby properties.

“You have to put the wind turbines where the wind is and, unfortunately, that’s usually on top of the hill,” Cordas said.

Next steps

Cordas said the Swauk Valley Ranch is in negotiations with two turbine manufacturers. The location and potential impacts to transportation are being considered as the ranch determines the size and type of turbines to be installed. Cordas said placing five smaller turbines on the site might cost more than erecting three large turbines, but could potentially have fewer negative impacts.

“Of course, it’s driven by the financial, but that’s not 100 percent,” Cordas said. “Whether you make more or less (money) is not 100 percent of the goal.”

About 67 percent of the 3,856 acre Swauk Valley Ranch is under conservation easements. Cordas believes this and other environmentally oriented projects undertaken on the ranch serve as examples of responsible land stewardship and have helped to bolster public support for the project.

“They see what you’re trying to do at the property, and they understand that it’s not a use and abuse kind of scenario, and that you’re trying to make everything better in the long-term,” Cordas said.

Pro and con

Some people still harbor concerns about another wind project in the county.

“I don’t think the county understands the cumulative effects of expanding overlay zones, because they happen to get a well-written proposal,” said Charli Sorenson, who attended the Oct. 25 county commissioners meeting about the project.

Sorenson said that she would like to see the county conduct more in-depth studies into the cumulative impacts that wind turbines might have on things like microclimates, microwave communication and aviation before it encourages the construction of additional wind farms.

“Swauk Valley has a really sweet little project, and if it was the first in the valley, I’d probably be all for it,” Sorenson said.

Commissioner Alan Crankovich, who cast the lone vote against the Swauk Valley Ranch project at the Oct. 25 meeting, previously told the Daily Record that it was a hard decision for him, but he voted against the project because it was creating, or extending, the existing wind-power overlay zone.

“Again, if we approved this smaller request and allow random expansions around the county, where does it stop?” Crankovich said.

Commissioner Paul Jewell, who voted in favor of the project, noted the Swauk Valley Ranch application was tied to a specific, detailed project.

“This is a smaller-scale project with small-scale turbines,” Jewell said. “It’s really a different ballgame.”

Questions and answers
Q: How many turbines will the Swauk Valley Ranch wind project build?

A: Alex Cordas, who represents the ranch’s owners, said three to five turbines will be constructed on 40 acres, depending upon the size of the turbines used. The overall project will generate five megawatts of electricity or less.

Q: How big will the turbines be?

A: The towers may range from 240 to 270 feet tall from ground to the tip of a vertically extended rotor blade. Swauk Valley Ranch is still negotiating with two turbine manufacturers to determine the type and exact size of the turbines that will be used at the ranch.

Q: Where will the wind project be built?

A: The wind farm will be built near the center of the Swauk Valley Ranch, which covers 3,856 acres adjacent to state Route 10 between Ellensburg and Cle Elum.

Q: When will the wind project be built?

A: County Planner Dan Valoff said proponents are now required to complete a development plan and submit several studies, including evaluating and mitigating project impacts on wildlife, the viewshed, local bodies of water, wildfire risks, groundwater and others.

Cordas said he hopes construction of the project will begin next spring and the turbines will be online before the end of 2012.

Two wind projects sought, one approved
Kittitas County Commissioners on Oct. 25 approved a wind-overlay change for a small-scale wind project at the Swauk Valley Ranch between Cle Elum and Ellensburg.

The project didn’t get nearly the level of attention as a bigger proposal from the Columbia Plateau Energy Facility to expand the wind-overlay zone in the eastern part of the county. The Columbia Plateau expansion covered 5,760 acres. The Swauk Valley overlay is 380 acres, and the wind project is expected to cover 40 acres.

Of the 42 people who listed their name on a signup sheet at the Oct. 25 commissioners’ meeting, 38 said they came because of Columbia Plateau request.

Kittitas County Commissioner Paul Jewell said the Swauk Valley Ranch application enjoys more public support than the application submitted by Columbia Plateau Energy, including endorsements from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Yakama Nation. Jewell said the commissioners attempt to divorce themselves from their emotions when making decisions, but as representatives, need to consider public sentiment.

“This application is quite a bit different,” he said, explaining the reasoning that led him to vote to approve the Swauk Valley request and not the other. “This is nowhere near the (existing) zone, so it’s not an expansion of that zone.”

— Justin Pittman

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