A year and a half ago, the Blue Mountain Alliance – a group started in 2008 to argue for stricter regulations on wind projects – helped pass new wind energy rules that set aside a large chunk of the Blue Mountains and required all commercial wind turbines to be built two miles away from any dwelling in Umatilla County.
The ordinance would have made the county’s wind farm regulations the strictest in the state, but the watchdog group says the new regulations are not being taken seriously.
In an effort to enforce the 2011 ordinance, the Blue Mountain Alliance visited Salem courts, including the Oregon Supreme Court, twice last week to argue over whether the two-mile setback is a health protection and if the county sidestepped the state law in its new regulations.
“We’ve been working for five years this spring,” said BMA founder Richard Jolly. “Until these decisions are made, we haven’t gotten anywhere.”
An Oregon Supreme Court hearing Jan. 7 tackled whether or not the setback rule is a health safety rule or a land use rule.
If the setback is a health safety rule – because, the Alliance argues, of high noise levels – it can be effective retroactively, whereas a land-use rule is only enforceable to projects built after the law was put in place.
This is a significant distinction because the Helix Wind Power Facility, a proposed 134-turbine project, does not follow the setback rule and had plans for the facility before June 2011, when the county’s regulations were passed.
A court of appeals hearing just a day before, on Jan. 6, addressed the county attorney’s justification for wanting turbines out of the Walla Walla watershed. The case originated from several local landowners who accused the county attorney of not following state planning procedure outlined when sanctioning off much of the Blue Mountains.
Those procedures provide increased protections for natural resources, scenic areas, historic areas and open spaces, but requires studies to back it up. The studies would be costly to carry out and the county eventually removed them from the ordinance.
“It’s unclear whether there are others backing him or not,” said Umatilla County planning director Tamra Mabbott.
Jolly said he is optimistic the courts will side with the county and Blue Mountain Alliance.
“You can never really tell these things but from everything I’ve been told, I’m hopeful,” he said.
The Supreme Court and court of appeals are expected to reach a decision in the next few months.
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