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Monterey County planners approve wind turbines for Gonzales

A pair of towering wind turbines, the tallest in the Salinas Valley and nearly twice the height previously allowed, got the go-ahead from the Monterey County Planning Commission on Wednesday.

By a unanimous vote, the commission recommended approval of the turbines to the county Board of Supervisors. The approval includes a three-year monitoring program to assess the impact on birds and other airborne wildlife and public health.

The commission also recommended an amendment to county code allowing the turbines to exceed the current 200-foot height limit. They will stand nearly 400 feet high just outside Gonzales city limits.

Energy produced by the turbines will be used to power the proposed Vista Santa Lucia Agricultural Business Park and Visitor Center off Gonzales River Road.

The turbines are backed by the city of Gonzales and developer Herbert Myer.

Despite an impassioned warning from a Monterey Peninsula activist about the dangers of wind turbines, county planning and health staff and a wildlife expert said it was unlikely they would have a significant impact on public health or birds of prey.

Turbines have been criticized for everything from noise impacts to their capacity for killing birds, such as the California condor and the golden eagle, that can’t detect the rotors to avoid flying into them.

The project relied on an initial study and negative declaration for its environmental review.

County planning director Mike Novo said he had spoken
with health department officials who assured him they were comfortable the turbines would not affect nearby residents and their health. Novo acknowledged that turbines placed too close to homes could affect residents’ sleep and, as a result, their overall health, but he said health officials indicated they were “comfortable” the turbines were a safe distance from residences.

County health official Krista Hanni even compared the noise generated by the turbines to the inside of a library.

Mike Stake, senior wildlife biologist with the Ventana Wildlife Society, said the turbines were far enough away from wildlife corridors and major water sources that they would be less likely to affect birds of prey. Stake said the society conducted a year’s worth of monitoring at the site, and was just starting to sift through the data, but believed the proposed site is advantageous.

He called for “continuous monitoring” of the site, saying the organization is “concerned about the future of California condors.”

In response, several commissioners called for monitoring as a condition of approval. After a short break, an agreement was reached on a three-year monitoring program that included quarterly reports for the first year and semi-annual reports for the next two years.

Activist Nina Beety, who makes regular appearances at county government sessions on behalf of causes such as opposing smart meters, said turbines kill millions of birds worldwide, are prone to fire and falling parts, and have a negative impact on human health.

Beety said turbines are “not green” and only benefit limited interests.

She asked if the county was planning on studying the cumulative impacts of wind energy projects on the valley, suggesting turbines could begin to proliferate.

But the alternative energy benefits drew broad support from commissioners, including Don Rochester, who called them a “blight” on the landscape.

The project was held up for several months to allow additional public outreach in Gonzales, but a public meeting drew only two participants and essentially no community opposition.