Baker County Commissioners are considering whether to overturn an advisory panel’s decision to reject conditional use permits for construction of wind farms near Lime and Huntington.
The event on Wednesday attracted a busload of Huntington residents. They alone nearly filled the small meeting room at the Baker County Courthouse.
They brought with them a petition signed by nearly 170 people stating support for the energy project.
County Commissioner Mark Bennett recused himself from the appeal hearing because he was the county’s planning director when the developers, Oregon Windfarms LLC, initially made their permit request in late April.
Commission Chair Fred Warner Jr. and Commissioner Tim Kerns heard from the five appellants during the three-hour hearing.
“I don’t think we got a fair deal,” said Nick Bokides, one of the property owners where the turbines would be built. “If staff recommendations were heeded, we wouldn’t be here.”
Bokides told commissioners that people were saying “stuff with no foundation” during the hearings about the project, and wind farms in general.
“There were numerous instances of people trying to deny this (project) without the facts,” Bokides also said.
People opposed to the wind farms cited an array of concerns during planning commission hearings earlier this year, including the possible proliferation of such projects and their dependence on tax subsidies.
Neither argument is pertinent in this case, the appellants contend.
“Your planning department did what it was supposed to do,” said Max Taggart, an attorney representing the parties behind the project.
However, because of the public opposition to the project the planning commissioners took that list of recommendations and “tossed it out of the window,” Taggart said.
He described the planning commission’s decision as resembling a “taking” – attempting to restrict development potential of land through zoning regulations.
Taggart also noted that many wind farm opponents aren’t from Huntington or Lime but from Baker City, which is 40 miles away.
The location where the farms would be “is about as good as God can make” for wind farming, Taggart said.
Just four of the seven planning commissioners heard the evidence presented during meetings in June and July and, ultimately, denied the conditional use permit: Jim Grove, Randy Joseph, Alice Trindle and Suzan Ellis Jones.
Two members, Chris Dunn and Linda Wicker, were absent. The third member, Bill Harvey, recused himself because he is personally opposed to the wind farms.
Promoters assert in a memorandum of support that the wind farms would provide “substantial economic benefits to Baker County, and specifically to the Huntington area.”
Though this isn’t among the criteria the county considers, it doesn’t mean “these are not important considerations for the people of Baker County,” the appeal stated.
Opponents argue that the wind farm would harm the county’s tourism base because it would clutter the natural viewshed and, in one area, sit in a portion of the Oregon Trail.
The other major reason cited in the appeal is that the planning commissioners “did not interpret the evidence correctly when considering Applicant’s compliance with Baker County Zoning Ordinances.”
Specific areas being contested are:
• Whether the project would have minimal adverse impact on the livability of neighboring properties and the surrounding area when compared to impact of development already allowed.
• Whether the project’s site and structures would be as attractive as the nature of use and its setting warrant.
• Whether the project would preserve assets of particular interest in the community.
• Whether this use of the property would materially alter the stability of the overall land use pattern.
• Whether there is a need for additional setbacks from property lines or other methods to provide buffering from the noise or view.
• Whether there is a need for this type of project not already being fulfilled.
Another appellant, Glenn Ikemoto, said the planning commissioners concluded that livability standards weren’t met based simply on citizen testimony.
And there’s no explanation about how the planning commissioners reached their conclusions, according to the appeal document.
“The planning commission struggled mightily with this,” Warner said at the end of the hearing.
Planning commissioners had to consider such things as “natural resources, heritage, and culture while protecting private property ownership,” Warner said.
Part of the difficulty the planning commissioners faced in this instance is that the pertinent county zoning ordinance is 30 years old and “doesn’t have any provisions for wind farms.”
Warner also answered the assertion made by Taggart that the process constituted a “taking” by noting that he is adamant about the “sanctity of private property rights.”
Kerns commented about one of the appellants’ arguments against the assertion that the wind turbines would ruin the viewshed of the Oregon Trail. They showed a picture of the dilapidated and long-abandoned Lime plant and said it was a site along the Oregon Trail.
The Lime plant example makes the county’s decision “look silly,” he said.
“I thought this all got bogged down with whether wind power is good or bad,” Kerns said.
Its merits as an energy source aren’t a decision the county should make, Kerns said.
Maximum capacity at the wind farm near Huntington would be 20 megawatts, from a proposed 12 turbines. The Lime site would produce 30 megawatts from 12 to 18 turbines.
The two wind farms would share a substation and transmit power to existing Idaho Power Company transmission line.
Some of the proposed sites for installing wind turbines are in core sage grouse habitat.
The appellants argue that their efforts to avoid the sage grouse and other species actually aren’t required because the land on which the turbines would operate is privately owned.
Warner and Kerns expect to announce a decision during a meeting scheduled to begin at 1:15 p.m. on Oct. 2.
If the final county decision is to deny the permit, then the appellants could take their case to the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals, LUBA.
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