A ridgetop research tower that utility developers hoped would lead to a commercial windmill farm near Tomales was dead this week, collapsing after a lawsuit by environmentalists.
Even though the clean energy project got the green light last year on a unanimous vote of county supervisors, officials at NextEra Energy Inc. bailed out amid a lawsuit by a handful of conservationists who contended the program required environmental study under state law.
As a result of a settlement agreement between the energy firm and coastal environmentalists, the Marin Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved legal papers setting aside permits for the towers – as well as a finding that no environmental review was needed. The result: No project is proposed or approved.
NextEra, a $21 billion energy developer based in Florida with 15,000 employees in 28 states and Canada, wanted to determine if there was enough wind to make a commercial energy operation worthwhile, but had second thoughts after a legal confrontation with a coalition of residents called West Marin/Sonoma Coastal Advocates.
Chris Griffith, San Francisco counsel for the energy company, said NextEra’s “decision to withdraw the application had nothing to do with the litigation” and said the “company remains confident it ultimately would have been successful in that litigation.”
Further, she added, the situation reflects the company’s “intent to focus its resources on areas that
it deems most likely to yield a successful project in the near future.”
NextEra declined comment on whether it might submit a new application for towers in Marin, she added.
But the West Marin/Sonoma Coastal Advocates were jubilant, declaring victory in their war with a utility developer they feared would plop a bird-killing, environmentally disruptive eyesore on ridges in the rural coastal community.
Helen Kozoriz of Oakland, spokeswoman for the North Bay group, called it “truly a David versus Goliath story,” saying the six- or seven-member loosely knit organization “had to scramble to come up with the filing fee” to file the lawsuit. “We don’t have the deep pockets NextEra does,” said Kozoriz, adding she became alarmed at “bird Cuisinart” wind farm developments when a big project disrupted her sister’s homestead in Canada.
Kozoriz speculated that tax-credit incentives for energy developers may expire, prompting companies facing hurdles to look for more lucrative turf in the most favorable environs.
The coalition, including Tomales resident Louise Gregg and West Marin rancher Susie Schlesinger, warned that the research towers had potentially significant impacts on the vista, were inconsistent with county land use policies and could hurt badgers, birds and bats.
“We are very pleased,” Gregg said. “Residents were very concerned that an industrial-scale wind project could be located near the historic town of Tomales.”
Rather than going to court, “the county and NextEra capitulated,” Schlesinger said. “We hope that no further … towers will be proposed for industrial-scale wind energy projects in the coastal zone and elsewhere in Marin County.”
County supervisors dismissed environmental concerns last year when they approved the two 197-foot-tall ridgetop data towers festooned with meteorological testing gear, a solar panel, electronic devices to transmit data, and four bright orange balls to alert aircraft. The board vote overturned a 5-2 Planning Commission decision calling for an environmental review, especially study to determine whether the project could trigger a bird slaughter.
Supervisors noted that despite passionate protests from groups including Marin Audubon, some studies indicated no great potential for harm to birds, a conclusion reached by a Point Reyes Bird Observatory official as well.
Barbara Salzman, head of Marin Audubon, had a one-word reaction after the supervisors’ vote last year: “crummy.” But on Thursday she was ecstatic: “I think it’s fantastic,” she said of the project’s collapse.
NextEra, which operates more than 9,000 windmills on 77 wind farms across the nation and Canada, wanted to erect one tower on a ridge on a 157-acre parcel owned by Jablons and Tamara Hicks at 5488 Middle Road. Dillon Beach is about 1.5 miles southwest of the site. Another was planned for a ridgetop on a 291-acre parcel owned by Diane Gregory and Francis Cornett at 2640 Whitaker Bluff Road. Dillon Beach is about three miles southwest of the site.
The primary function of the temporary towers proposed near Estero de San Antonio and Stemple Creek was to gather wind speed data to determine whether the area might be an appropriate locale for a utility-scale wind energy facility.
The lawsuit demanded the county set aside the NextEra project and prepare an environmental review. The coalition also filed an appeal with the state Coastal Commission along with Marin Audubon and the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin.
“Given the decision of the applicant to withdraw its application and the mutual request of the applicant and those who filed suit regarding the board’s approval without full CEQA (environmental) analysis, our board did the right thing to repeal our previous approval,” Supervisor Steve Kinsey said, noting the county had approved temporary data research towers – and not wind turbines or windmills.
“I fully support the use of renewable energy in our county; however, West Marin is an unlikely location for industrial-scale energy projects,” he said, noting the region’s “long distance from consumers who could use the generated power, the need for substantial transmission facilities, and the cultural and environmental characteristics of West Marin.”
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