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Wind farm opponents get day in high court

Blue Mountain Alliance, an organization against siting wind turbines near the Blue Mountains, will go before the Oregon Supreme Court Jan. 7 in a case that could help decide future wind development in the area.

The group filed a brief with the court Nov. 5 after being denied a contested hearing before the Energy Facility Siting Council to enforce the two-mile setback rule in Umatilla County. While debating the Helix Wind Power Facility project, the siting council struck down the request in late August, stating that Umatilla County’s two-mile setback rule is a land-use rule and not a public health rule.

If a rule is considered a matter of public health, it is effective retroactively. However, if a rule is considered land-use and established after the developer applies for a project, it does not apply.

Umatilla County planner Tamra Mabbott said the rule requires wind turbines to be built two miles away from any dwelling, except for a landowner that builds non-commercial turbines on their own property.

Richard Jolly of the Blue Mountain Alliance said the only way the group could contest the ruling was to go to the state supreme court.

The initial hearing is Jan. 7 at 3 p.m. A decision will not be issued immediately, Jolly said.

He, however, feels confident in his side’s arguments in the case.

“The council is supposed to apply the county ordinance at any time the law is related to health and public safety,” Jolly said. “The setback is a noise issue and that is health and public safety.”

According to a response filed by the siting council, the council has the authority to apply later-adopted health and safety regulations if there is clear evidence of a significant threat to human health. Scientific opinions on the health effects of wind turbines are divided, the response stated.

All wind turbine projects are required to comply with noise regulations set forth by the Department of Environmental Quality, including the Helix project, Mabbott said.

“Public health was one reason and it’s controversial,” Mabbott said. “It’s an emerging science and there is a lot of anecdotal information.”

The project developer, Iberdrola Renewables, Inc., is a Spanish company with American subsidiaries. They plan to install up to 134 wind turbines, but has yet to begin construction. The company asked the council to extend the start date to Aug. 5, 2014, and extend the completion date to Aug. 5, 2017.

The alliance’s brief to the court states the siting council denied the their request that the extension decision include a condition of approval. The council is not required to do so, if the ordinance is interpreted as a land-use rule.

“We argued that they were not interpreting the law in the correct way,” Jolly said. “What this is about is applying these rules.”