Planning commissioners explain their flip-flops as supes prepare to hear the Terra-Gen Wind Project appeal at the Adorni Center
Credit: Ryan Burns | Lost Coast Outpost | November 27. 2019 | lostcoastoutpost.com ~~
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After three overflowing meetings of the Humboldt County Planning Commission regarding the controversial Humboldt Wind Energy Project – which the commission wound up rejecting with a 4-2 vote in last week’s nail-biter finale – the proposal is headed to the Board of Supervisors on appeal.
And in response to pressure from the public and the City of Rio Dell, the county has secured a much larger venue – Eureka’s Adorni Center – for the board’s special hearing, which has been scheduled for Monday, Dec. 16.
The proposed project, which calls for 47 wind turbines, each more than 600 feet tall, to be installed on mountain ridges south of Scotia, seemed headed for approval during Thursday night’s meeting, only for Third District Commissioner Noah Levy to unexpectedly vote against it at the last minute, creating a three-three tie. (The commission’s seventh member, Brian Mitchell, was absent.)
This temporary deadlock left the fate of the project in limbo, and Terra-Gen’s senior director of wind development, Nathan Vajdos, requested a definitive vote. Approval or denial didn’t matter as much as getting an answer, he said, because with certain funds hanging in the balance, the company needs a final decision before the end of the year.
When the Planning Commission took a second vote late Thursday night – this time on a motion to deny the project – First District Commissioner Alan Bongio, who had just voted to approve it, switched positions, voting instead to deny it.
Reached by phone Tuesday, Bongio said he’s still “110 percent” in favor of the project.
“I changed my vote out of respect for what the applicant has gone through, to at least give them the ability to take this to the Board of Supervisors,” Bongio explained.
He said Terra-Gen has spent more than $12 million getting the project to this point, and he gave the company credit for its public engagement.
“I’ve never seen any company, in anything I’ve been involved with, do as much outreach as they have,” he said, noting that Terra-Gen offered to take commissioners and stakeholders up in a helicopter to see the project site from above. (Several commissioners, including Bongio and Levy, took the company up on that offer.)
Bongio said he hopes the Board of Supervisors will wind up making “the right decision for the people of Humboldt” when they hear the appeal.
“They’re put in a tough position, and they should make the tough decisions,” he said.
The Outpost also spoke with Levy on Tuesday. He said he’d been “really wanting to get to a ‘yes’ on this project.” His efforts to get there included conversations with Humboldt County Planning and Building Director John Ford and Terra-Gen representatives in hopes of securing certain improvements to the project.
To a certain extent, those efforts bore fruit, Levy said. For example, coming into last week’s meeting, Terra-Gen had agreed to fund an all-species technical advisory committee (TAC), to abstain from using herbicides during forest clearing for the required gen-tie lines, and to provide a point-of-sale site here in Humboldt County, which would allow county government to collect sales tax on millions of dollars in equipment.
“I was feeling, as I have at each hearing, that this project is getting incrementally but meaningful better,” Levy said. However, the changes were happening on the fly, and documents spelling out the relevant details sometimes didn’t arrive in front of commissioners until hours or minutes before the meetings commenced.
“All that being said, for some portion of the meeting I still thought I would get to a ‘yes,’” Levy said. A couple of things caused him to hesitate, though. One was the fact that this project would undeniably have significant, unavoidable impacts, as spelled out in the environmental impact report.
Most projects that come before the Planning Commission include mitigation measures that render any environmental impacts “less than significant,” as defined by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). But the Humboldt Wind Energy Project includes a list of impacts that simply can’t be mitigated that far. These include bird deaths and impacts to tribal cultural resources, as the project site includes Bear River Ridge, which the Wiyot Tribe calls Tsakiyuwit and considers sacred.
In order to approve the project, then, the Planning Commission would have had to endorse a “statement of overriding consideration,” saying, in effect, that the project’s benefits outweigh its negative impacts.
For Levy, that was a high bar, but he said he might still have gotten to a “yes” if he’d had more time to pore over the most recent documentation, including a sheaf of financial statements from Terra-Gen intended to show why more extensive mitigations simply weren’t financially feasible.
“I had just read that 10 minutes before the meeting started,” Levy said. “All I saw was big spreadsheet, and I had no ability to make sense of it.”
Toward the end of Thursday’s meeting, Levy floated the idea of delaying the vote a couple of weeks to allow time to absorb the latest documentation while also giving Mitchell, the absent commissioner, his chance to weigh in. But Commission Chair Robert Morris rejected the suggestion.
The other big factor that swayed Levy’s vote, he said, was feedback from the passionate and dedicated public speakers who showed up to the meetings.
Levy said the project has two kinds of opponents: There were the hecklers – the folks who were “inappropriately oversimplifying this case,” he said – and then the others, “who I think were genuinely recognizing that this was a tough call but still came out against [the project].”
Levy noted at the meeting that Terra-Gen’s proposal has split the local environmental community, even dividing supporters of local nonprofit EPIC (the Environmental Protection Information Center), on whose board of directors Levy serves.
“I’d heard from many people, not least my own kids, urging me to vote ‘yes’,” Levy said.
But the majority of public commenters at the commission’s three hearings spoke in opposition, and while Levy acknowledged that this subset of the public might not accurately reflect the sentiments of the whole community, he nevertheless found himself moved.
“The weight of the thoughtful testimony against this project did bring me around … ,” Levy said. “Even though I didn’t agree with all the people in the audience … I really did appreciate the commitment and the passion that these people brought.”
And with the public’s strong opinions on this project, Levy said it seems appropriate that its fate now lies in the hands of the Board of Supervisors rather than the Planning Commission.
Kathy Hayes, the clerk of the board, told the Outpost Tuesday afternoon that there were some technological and logistical challenges in lining up a larger venue for the board’s upcoming hearing. For one thing, Access Humboldt needs a specific type of cable hookup for its public, educational and governmental (PEG) feed, which allows meetings to be broadcast live via public access on Suddenlink channel 10 or 11. (The meetings are also streamed online.)
Another challenge: many of the county’s larger venues, including the Fortuna River Lodge and Eureka’s Sequoia Conference Center, are pretty much booked solid in December, Hayes said.
But as of Tuesday afternoon, the county had lined up the Adorni Center and confirmed that it is technologically equipped to broadcast the meeting to the public.
Again, the special hearing of the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors to consider the Humboldt Wind Energy Project has been scheduled for Monday, December 16, at the Adorni Center, 1011 Watefront Drive in Eureka.
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