A proposed wind farm between Livingston and Big Timber has received multiple legal challenges from a group of landowners opposed to the project.
The latest action came Thursday, when the nearby ranches filed a lawsuit against Sweet Grass County, alleging a proposed road use agreement ceded too much control over county roads to Crazy Mountain Wind, LLC, the company behind the project. Hours later, the Sweet Grass County Commission declined to make a decision on the agreement, saying at the advice of their lawyer, they were taking more time to consider the agreement.
“We’re going to take a look at the road agreement one more time and maybe tweak it a little bit,” said Commissioner Melanie Roe.
Commissioner JV Moody said they want to make sure it’s done correctly.
“It may be the same document that we put out before. We may decide to approve the same document laying here in front of us. We want to make sure our bases are covered,” Moody said.
Commissioner Bill Wallace expressed frustration at how long the issue is taking, saying the commission has incorporated significant public comment already.
“I don’t know when we will ever get enough,” Wallace said. The lawsuit over the road use agreement – usually an administrative formality – was the latest in what has become a more-than-decade long attempt to construct a wind development on private land in both Sweet Grass and Park counties.
Crazy Mountain Wind’s 26-turbine development project, owned by San Francisco-based energy company Pattern Energy, has been in the works for years and is set to be operational by the end of this year.
A group of landowners has sued to stop the project, arguing in court documents that 26 500-foot tall turbines between the Crazy Mountains and the Yellowstone River would limit the enjoyment of their property by creating a nuisance, lower property values and harm wildlife, including golden and bald eagles.
Meanwhile, Rick Jarrett and Alfred Anderson – the private landowners whose land is being developed for the wind farm – argue in court documents that the future of their ranches depends on the income from the wind farm and lawsuits by out-of-state corporate investors are an 11th hour attempt to stop them from developing a state-approved project on private land.
Who’s against the project?
Four companies filed the lawsuit against Crazy Mountain Wind and the landowners in September, seeking an end to the wind turbine development. A preliminary injunction hearing will take place in Livingston on Feb. 19-21.
“The Power Project is a blot on the beauty of the breathtaking vistas of Montana and its natural resources, wildlife and waters, which directly and adversely affects Plaintiffs, neighboring ranches, individual home owners, and all of Montanans and out of state tourists who visit Park and Sweet Grass Counties for its astonishing beauty and recreational amenities,” the lawsuit reads.
The four companies include:
— Diana’s Great Idea, LLC, a neighboring ranch whose sole trustee is David Chesnoff, a Las Vegas attorney who, according to news reports, has represented clients such as Bruno Mars, Britney Spears and Martha Stewart.
— Engwis Investment Company, LTD, a 5,500-acre ranch owned by Colorado investment banker Jan Engwis, who listed the ranch for sale for $19.5 million in June 2017.
— R.F. Building Company, also owned by Engwis.
— Rock Creek Ranch I LTD, a 48,000-acre ranch owned by Texas oilman Russell Gordy, who told the Wall Street Journal he sometimes forgets how many ranches he owns in his $96 million collection.
Who’s for the project?
The first attempt at building a wind farm on Jarrett’s property started in the early 2000s. The most successful attempt prior to Crazy Mountain Wind was a project called Coyote Wind. In 2009, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation approved the 36-turbine project.
However, Gordy, Engwis and Wild Eagle Mountain Ranch, LLC, another neighboring ranch, sued the DNRC, alleging the approval violated the Montana Environmental Policy Act and won, effectively stopping the project.
Jarrett and Anderson said in court documents that the financial investment in that project became too expensive and worked to find a different, more viable project, which became the proposed Crazy Mountain Wind project.
Jarrett and Anderson declined to comment for this story through their attorney.
In court documents, Jarrett says he is a fifth generation Montana rancher, and he has been “diagnosed with Parkinson’s and will lose his family’s ranch and will be unable to pay for necessary medical care without the income he will receive” from the project.
Anderson said in court documents he is hoping to use the income to retire, at the age of 87, from ranching, which his family has done in Sweet Grass County since the early 1900s.
“Without the income he hopes to receive from Crazy Mountain Wind he will not be able to retire and will not be able to keep his family ranch,” court documents say.
They argue in court that they have a right to build turbines on their land if they so choose. They also said that concerns about the environment aren’t valid because the DNRC approved the project, court documents show.
“Should Jarrett and Anderson risk losing their family ranches to out-of-state corporations funded by a Texas oilman, a Las Vegas lawyer to the stars, and a Colorado investment banker?” court documents read.
Gordy, Chesnoff: Wind turbines destroy view shed
In a signed affidavit as a part of the lawsuit, Gordy said he attempted to purchase the wind rights from Jarrett and put them in a conservation easement, allowing Jarrett to continue his ranching operation while not “destroying the view shed of the Yellowstone Valley and endangering the numerous raptors that thrive there.”
Gordy, who said he lives in Montana from June through September, said he has long considered building a resort at Hunter’s Hot Springs, a historical hotel on his land, and spent more than $100,000 on blue prints to build a high-end, boutique hotel and spa with 10-20 rooms and cabins but that he wouldn’t do so if there was a wind farm.
Chesnoff, in an affidavit, said that he has regularly been coming to Montana for 40 years, and his wife’s grandparents are from Billings. He said he has spent millions of dollars on his ranch and used local tradesmen on the project. He said that they spent years looking for property and chose this one because of its unique location.
“There are no other places which have the mountains, the Yellowstone River, the Lewis and Clark Trail, the open spaces and spectacular wildlife and avian life which is the reason we chose this location,” Chesnoff said.
He also said that Pattern Energy executives misrepresented the project to him, saying he would only be able to see the tops of two windmills, but he said that is not accurate.
The landowners who filed the lawsuit against Jarrett and Anderson have also started the Crazy Mountain Neighbors Coalition in opposition to the project, and more than 300 people have signed an online petition against the project at stopcrazymtwindfarm.com.
Cindy Selensky, a Big Timber resident, is one member of the coalition who spoke against the project at Thursday’s meeting.
In a follow-up interview with The Enterprise, Selensky said her biggest concern was transparency.
“This project is moving extremely fast, with no opportunity for public input or local review or to determine what the consequences of the development might be on local tourism and the local economy,” she said. “Nothing is stopping someone putting up a 500-foot wind tower next to your house.”
The Montana Public Service Commission approved the project after a review that lasted almost a year. Neither Sweet Grass nor Park counties has zoning in the area that would prevent such a development.
Park County Commissioner Steve Caldwell said that the only interaction the county has had with Crazy Mountain Wind is to issue a road improvement plan. Caldwell said the company also asked about tax abatements but the county declined.
“That’s really it,” Caldwell said. “There’s no permitting, nothing, no zoning in that area, so they don’t really need anything else from us.”