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Whatcom County reviews new wind power regulations

A new county ordinance regulating wind power turbines will get a public hearing at the Tuesday, May 8, Whatcom County Council meeting.

The new ordinance has been in the works for more than two years. It contains a complex set of technical requirements for turbines of various sizes, with setback restrictions meant to minimize impacts on neighboring properties.

In 2010, the council suspended its 2008 wind power regulations and imposed a moratorium on new applications for large wind turbines. The council acted after Squalicum Mountain property owners complained about Cascade Community Wind Co.’s preliminary plans for a two-to-three megawatt installation there, in a rural forestry zone.

The moratorium was later scaled back to include only areas zoned rural forestry or agricultural. The proposed new ordinance would no longer allow large installations, with an output greater than 500 kilowatts, in rural forestry zones. They would be allowed in agricultural, commercial forestry, and high-impact industrial zones but would require a conditional use permit from the Whatcom County Hearing Examiner.

A 500-kilowatt power source is large enough to provide power for 200 to 300 households.

The new ordinance also would prohibit installations with an output greater than 50 kilowatts within the Lake Whatcom watershed.

Cascade Community Wind has a pending application for a large wind turbine installation of 2,000 to 3,000 kilowatts on commercial forestry land on Lookout Mountain, also known as Galbraith Mountain. Terrance Meyer, Cascade’s founder, said the project is in private forest land on the boundary between the Lake Whatcom and Lake Samish watersheds, and the site could be graded to make sure there is no drainage toward Lake Whatcom, which is the drinking water source for Bellingham and many outlying areas.

Meyer said the County Council may want to rethink the watershed ban. He suggested that turbines could be a source of revenue for the county if the council approves the transfer of state-owned forest land to county ownership. The lands proposed for that transfer may contain viable wind power sites on both Lookout and Stewart mountains, Meyer said.

As he sees it, a turbine installation would have no real impact on the lake, since a ridgetop location would need only 16 feet of runoff-generating impervious surface, and the runoff would drain into forested areas, not to streams.

In any event, county planner Alex Cleanthous said Galbraith Mountain project’s pending application will be processed under the existing county ordinance, which contains no prohibition on turbine construction in the watershed.

But the project still faces regulatory hurdles under the existing 2008 law. Cleanthous said the county planning department is conducting an environmental review under the state Environmental Policy Act, and that process includes a public comment period that has yet to be scheduled. Mitigation measures could be imposed on the project via that process.

The project also would require a conditional use permit, which requires additional review and public hearing before the Whatcom County Hearing Examiner, and the examiner’s ruling could be appealed to the County Council.

Meyer is already encountering some resistance. Whatcom County resident Bill Cox said about 100 people have been involved in his effort to block the project.

“You can see this thing from all of Bellingham,” Cox said. “You can even see it from Skagit County. … I maintain that it’s a blight on the most scenic ridgeline that we have in Bellingham. … It’s not appropriate for a populated area.”

Cox fears that if Meyer manages to build a successful project at that location, it would be the first of many. He also contends that the wind power industry could not exist without tax incentives, and there is no real need for the power that wind turbines generate.

Meyer acknowledged that he expects the project to benefit from a 30 percent federal tax credit, but he said Cox exaggerates the tax advantages and overlooks the property tax revenue to local government that the $6 million project could generate.

Even if Meyer’s project gets regulatory approval, he acknowledged that there are still practical and economic issues. He is still in the process of gathering wind data for the proposed site, and its economic viability depends on the wind characteristics of the site as well as on the market price for the power it would generate. Plummeting natural gas prices have helped to drive down the price of electric power, he noted.

But if regulatory and economic issues are resolved, and investment dollars can be raised, Meyer said he could begin construction by summer or fall of 2013.

“My hope for that is weak,” Meyer said.


Click here to read the proposed new Whatcom County wind power ordinance here.


What: Public hearing on new Whatcom County ordinance regulating wind power turbines.

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 8.

Where: Council chambers at the Whatcom County Courthouse, 311 Grand Ave., Bellingham.