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Pattern Energy to offer benefit program worth more than $3 million

OCOTILLO – A public benefit program of more than $3 million for education and community projects was announced by the developer of a 112-wind-turbine project set to be built west of here.

Pattern Energy, whose project was approved by the county Planning Commission late last month, announced Friday that three funds of $1 million each would be established if the project comes to fruition.

Pattern will establish these funds through the Imperial Valley Community Foundation, according to a press release.

One fund would be for the Ocotillo and Nomirage communities, the release notes, while the other two would benefit Imperial Valley educational causes and other “worthy causes.”

Solar developers have been encouraged by the county to attach public benefit programs along with their projects since late last year.

And since then, developers have agreed to pay into the county’s public benefit program, which is set to finance economic development programs.

“This is not part of the public benefit program that the county has put in place for solar projects,” said Andy Horne, Imperial County Deputy Executive Officer. But it’s a similar concept.

Unlike solar developments (which are exempt from property taxes), this wind project will pay a significant amount of property taxes, Horne said.

Pattern will bring more than $100 million in local taxes, according to the county’s independent consultant.

Because of this, the county didn’t feel it was necessary to ask for a public benefit program, Horne said.

“We are not required to do this,” said Glen Hodges, senior developer for Pattern Energy.

But in efforts to be a good citizen, and to mitigate for the project’s impacts “this is the right thing to do,” he said.

Pattern also contributed $250,000 to the Imperial Valley Food Bank’s Backpack Program for a 20-year period, according the release.

This is aside from the more than $3.5 million that has been committed to Native American tribes for mitigation, said Hodges.

The announcement of the community benefits program comes days before the Imperial County Board of Supervisors will hear an appeal to the project.

The Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, Protect Our Community Foundation, Desert Protective Council, Laborers International Union of North America and Pattern submitted appeals early last week.

Pattern “wanted to make sure that we have a seat at the table,” said Hodges.

The other groups list zoning violations and allege that biological and cultural impacts aren’t adequately addressed by the environmental impact report.

Opposition groups have long held that the project will affect cultural and archaeological resources, as well as wildlife permanently.

Native American praying circles and cremation sites are in the project’s vicinity.

According to a BLM report, there are more than 287 documented archaeological sites in the area.

The project also borders some five miles of the De Anza Borrego State Park, the second-largest state park in the country.

The desert view will be lost, said long-time Ocotillo resident Violet Steele.

“Who wants to see 400-foot-high windmills,” she said. Steele is also reluctant to believe a community benefit program exists, and even if it did, she said, money doesn’t make a difference.

“I like my town the way it is,” Steele said, and “I think it’s just terrible that people want to do this around a little isolated community.”

The fact that energy will go to San Diego, also bothers her.

“Why don’t they put them (turbines) in San Diego,” Steele said.

And while some residents oppose the project, others, like Lee Buckingham, do not.

The program “sounds good,” he said. “I think it’s going to benefit some groups who do fundraising activities like the Optimist Club.”

Resident Martin Cochran also supports Pattern. The project “is going to create jobs,” he said.

Up to 350 jobs will be created during the construction phase and approximately 20 full-time permanent jobs thereafter, according to Pattern.

Meanwhile, Native American tribes such as the Viejas Band say “the community benefit program is clearly an attempt to pay off the community,” said Bob Scheid, Viejas spokesman.

He also dismisses the funds committed to the tribes.

“Nobody has talked to us about this. This fits Pattern’s arrogant and paternalist approach to the tribes throughout this entire project,” he said.

And for John Batchke, historic preservation officer for the Quechan Tribe, the funds are “basically a very poor attempt at addressing the needs of tribal governments.”

What is going on in the community is a discussion on the benefits and the impacts of the project, said Horne.

“And there are significant impacts, but there are also significant benefits,” he said.

The question for the Board of Supervisor is now whether one outweighs the other.