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Panel reaffirms support of wind farm near Gorge; Fate of project now in hands of Gov. Gregoire

The state’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council this week reaffirmed its approval of a controversial – but pared-down – wind farm near the Columbia River Gorge in Skamania County.

In October, the council recommended approving the proposed Whistling Ridge Energy Project, but also scaling it back from 50 wind turbines to 35, largely to protect views in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. The project developer, supporters and opponents all objected, for very different reasons. But the council on Tuesday denied their petitions for reconsideration and stood by its original decision.

The recommendation now goes to Gov. Chris Gregoire, who will have 60 days to decide the project’s fate once she formally receives the EFSEC order. That could happen as soon as this week.

“All eyes are on the governor right now,” said Nathan Baker, staff attorney for Friends of the Columbia River Gorge, one of the advocacy groups opposing the Whistling Ridge project.

Tuesday’s decision drew criticism from both sides of the debate.

SDS Lumber Co. and Broughton Lumber Co. first proposed the $150 million wind farm on private forestland in 2008. Jason Spadaro, president of SDS Lumber, called the council’s decision disappointing. He had pushed for the project’s original size to remain intact at 50 turbines capable of generating 75 megawatts of energy, and said Whistling Ridge wouldn’t pencil out financially with 15 fewer turbines. The project “would not be viable” in the scaled-back form the council recommended, he said, and will not be able to go forward.

Located just outside the scenic area boundary near the community of Underwood, the project would boost the economy and tax base of Skamania County, Spadaro said – a position the local economic development agency echoed to EFSEC in a petition. Curtailing that because of visual impacts to the scenic area puts future endeavors in question, he said.

“That’s a dangerous precedent for economic development in anywhere that’s visible from the national scenic area,” Spadaro said. “Where does that line stop?”

Opponents of the project took the opposite stance. Friends of the Columbia River Gorge was among multiple advocacy groups calling for a denial of the entire project, and reiterated its stance that EFSEC’s earlier restriction didn’t go far enough. On visual impacts, Baker said the scenic area boundary is irrelevant. The Gorge has been a protected, significant landscape since long before the scenic area was formed, and should remain so, he said.

Friends and other groups also cited possible impacts to wildlife in their objections to the project. Baker said his group hoped the council would do more to address those and other questions after its original recommendation.

“The impacts are still significant, even with those 15 turbines deleted,” Baker said. “The reality is, this site is not a good site for industrial energy development.”

The intense scrutiny and interest surrounding Whistling Ridge set a new bar for the EFSEC process, said council manager Al Wright. The application piled up many thousands of pages of record as well-represented players watched closely and weighed in every step of the way. It took longer than any other EFSEC process.

The reason? “The scenic area,” Wright said simply, plus all the visual and cultural implications that go with it.

“That’s what brought the interest and the money, quite frankly,” Wright said.

The governor will essentially have three choices when EFSEC’s order reaches her desk: She can accept it, deny it, or remand it and ask for changes. If Gregoire accepts EFSEC’s recommendation as is, Baker said it’s “very likely” that Friends of the Columbia River Gorge will appeal.