ELLENSBURG, Wash. – When a company from Seattle came calling, wanting to lease some land on Jeff and Jackie Brunson’s 1,000-acre hay and oat farm for a solar energy project, they jumped at the idea, and the prospect of receiving regular rent checks.
They did not anticipate the blowback – snarky texts, phone calls from neighbors, and county meetings where support for solar was scant.
Critics said the project would remove too much land from agricultural production in central Washington. If approved by regulators, it would be one of the biggest solar generators ever built in the state, with five large arrays spread around the county, covering around 250 acres with sun-sucking panels.
Ms. Brunson said the critics should mind their own business and respect property rights.
“They want the romance of watching you farm,” Ms. Brunson, 59, said. “They move into their little piece of heaven, their little three acres, or their little 20 acres, and they don’t want any other changes around them.”
“It really makes me angry,” she added. “They don’t have to pay the bills.”
A collision is underway in Kittitas County, a rural area on the eastern slopes of the Cascade Range southeast of Seattle, between a treasured past and a fast-arriving but uncertain future.
Old divisions of geography are part of it. The political power in Washington State, and the agenda for renewable energy and much else, comes from the liberal urban expanse around Seattle, and many people in conservative rural places east of the Cascades, like Kittitas County, chafe at the imbalance. A highly competitive congressional race for an open House seat is sharpening and heightening those tensions, as candidates of both parties vie for voters in a district that defines the state’s east-west divide.
Solar energy is now laying bare those tensions. So is population growth. Kittitas grew faster last year in percentage terms than any other county in the state, including the booming area around Seattle. The county seat of Ellensburg, population 20,000, has been one of the 10 fastest growing small cities in the nation for the past two years, census figures show, fueled by retirees and long-distance commuters priced out of the Seattle area.
But business growth in Kittitas County has not kept up, and the local unemployment rate, 4.8 percent, is higher than it was year ago. On top of that, there is a housing squeeze. Central Washington University in Ellensburg broke enrollment records last fall with more than 12,000 students, many of whom flooded the community in search of apartments because of a shortage of rooms on campus. Home prices and rents have spiraled, bringing about a small but painful rise in homelessness and new pressure on families like that of Ayanna and Ben Nelson, who are struggling.
“For us, a lot of options have turned into not many options,” said Ms. Nelson, 39, who has been looking for a bigger home for her family of six. With prices rising faster than Mr. Nelson’s salary as an engineering tech worker, the Nelsons say they may have to leave the state for cost reasons. “We don’t want to go, but just not sure if we can stay,” Ms. Nelson said.
Tensions over the growing population and shifting economy were already high two years ago when the solar project first came along. Fault lines quickly emerged. The area’s chamber of commerce, for example, endorsed the project, while the county board of commissioners supported a moratorium on commercial solar projects on prime farmland.
Opponents of the solar project have a shorthand line of attack: Seattle is pushing this.
“The wind farms aren’t located in the greater Seattle area, the wolves aren’t located in the greater Seattle area, the grizzly bear expansion isn’t slated for the Greater Seattle area, and the solar farms aren’t there either,” said Paul Jewell, a former county commissioner, ticking off highly debated initiatives that government officials have considered in recent years.
“They’re all in the rural areas,” said Mr. Jewell, who opposes the solar project. “And so there’s really a disconnect there – they say ‘yes,’ and we bear the burden. They say ‘yes,’ and we pay the price.”
Geography aside, conservatives and liberals have lined up on both sides of the solar question. Ronald Slater, a retired contractor and a supporter of President Trump, was so eager to get solar panels on his land that he handed out business cards at a recent county meeting. Carla Tacher, who manages a fruit and vegetable stand outside Ellensburg and said she leans toward Democrats, said that more renewable energy – far easier to produce in the sunnier weather east of the Cascades than in the western half of the state – is crucial for the global climate.
“I’m all for it,” Ms. Tacher said.
Broader political questions are on the horizon in November, when voters in Kittitas County will pick a successor to Dave Reichert, a seven-term Republican who is retiring. The county is a conservative anchor of the Eighth Congressional District, which extends west to more liberal suburbs of Seattle. Mr. Reichert, a right-of-center moderate on most issues, won the district in 2016 with significant support in Kittitas. But Hillary Clinton carried the district in the presidential race, as Barack Obama did in 2008 and 2012, so both parties see the House seat as winnable – and crucial to their control of the next Congress.
A Republican named Dino Rossi, who ran twice for governor, is his party’s likely nominee, with a big fund-raising lead and an endorsement from the Washington State Farm Bureau, a powerful group that lobbies at the state capital on agricultural issues.
The Democrats have a more crowded field in their Aug. 7 primary. All are newcomers to elected office, including two doctors – Kim Schrier, a pediatrician, and Shannon Hader, a former executive at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A former prosecutor, Jason Rittereiser, has made growing up in Ellensburg part of his pitch to win a divided district, but Ms. Schrier has raised more money than Mr. Rittereiser and has gained the endorsement of Emily’s List, the fund-raising group that focuses on advancing Democratic women in politics.
In Washington State, the geography of energy – from the hydropower projects of the 1930s through the nuclear energy era a generation later – has always been tangled up with state politics.
In Ellensburg, a state agency called the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, created in 1970, is considering the application for the solar project. The council has authority to override local opinion – crucial in the nuclear era, when few communities were eager to volunteer – and to send its recommendations about energy projects to Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, who has the final word. No federal approvals or congressional action is required, so the solar issue has not emerged as an issue so far among the candidates in the Eighth District race.
With a decision on the solar project expected as early as August, Mr. Inslee could affect local attitudes heading toward November, even though the project itself won’t be on the ballot.
His predecessor as governor, Christine Gregoire, also a Democrat, approved a wind energy project in Kittitas that many locals opposed – a decision that some people here never forgot or forgave her for making. The spinning rotor blades that now line the foothills were a first skirmish line in the battle over who controls the county’s future, opponents of the solar farm said.
Ms. Gregoire’s Republican opponent in both of her elections, whom she defeated narrowly each time, was none other than Mr. Rossi, the front-runner now for the nomination in the Eighth District.
The Brunsons, the family whose farmland is being sought for the solar project, said they were fans of Mr. Rossi then and are already committed again.
“Dino is our man,” Ms. Brunson said.
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