The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday voted 4-1 to deny the Terra-Gen wind energy project, rejecting a widely controversial plan to build wind turbines on the Bear River and Monument ridges above Scotia.
After an emotional, hours-long dialogue, the supervisors stopped short of approving the company’s proposal in a 2-3 decision, before voting again to officially deny the project.
In the initial vote, supervisors Virginia Bass and Rex Bohn voted to move the project forward. In the 4-1 final vote, Bass switched sides to join the majority.
Tuesday’s decision concludes months of drama over Terra-Gen’s proposal to build 47 wind turbines to produce renewable energy that would contribute to over half the county’s own power supply.
Debates over the plan’s merits included a myriad of issues: The Wiyot Tribe’s sacred ties to the ridges; the company’s promise to hire local union workers for construction; the impact of wind turbines on threatened bird species; Terra-Gen’s private equity ownership; and the need for renewable energy amid climate change’s mounting urgency.
Multiple supervisors acknowledged the project was the most divisive of all proposals they had seen in Humboldt County. They said they had lost sleep over the vote, knowing they would make enemies regardless of how they leaned.
“You don’t take this job to disappoint people, but damn, you get to do it,” Bohn said.
Until the very end, the board pressed Terra-Gen to potentially build elsewhere. At one point, the company agreed to set up a million-dollar endowment fund for the Wiyot Tribe. The board asked tribal elder Cheryl Seidner if that would be a suitable compromise. Seidner was firm, saying the tribe couldn’t be bought.
“You would not sell your mother,” Seidner told project staff. “We cannot sell our Earth.”
Terra-Gen Vice President Randy Hoyle was similarly steadfast, telling the supervisors the turbines simply couldn’t be built elsewhere and the number of turbines couldn’t be lowered any further without the project becoming financially infeasible.
Supervisor Mike Wilson, who emerged as an apparent swing vote during the decision, said Terra-Gen’s lack of mitigation for the land issue would push him into the zone of opposition.
“This is somewhat patronizing that we’re having this conversation without the impacted peoples,” Wilson said, referring to the tribe. “This is terrible.”
All of the supervisors spoke at length about their decision, reflecting intimately on their own life experiences and conflicting reasoning.
In a monologue that he would liken to a therapy session, Wilson touched on the generational trauma in Native American tribes following a history of genocide. He said the catastrophic threat of climate change had torn him between leanings, but pondered aloud the hypocrisies embedded in the push for renewable energy.
“We live in a society that is completely constructed from cheap fossil fuels,” Wilson said, later asking, “Why would we build these big industrial energy things so we can light lights for gas stations or lit-up billboards in town here? It’s stuff that seems so ancillary and dumb considering what we’re up against.”
Supervisor Estelle Fennell, who had been on the receiving end of criticism during Monday’s hearing, circled around her belief in renewable energy before stating her own opposition to the project – a revelation that evoked gasps from the audience.
“The questions for me are: Could we harvest the power of the wind without tearing the Earth apart?” Fennell said. “Is it a matter of place? To me, it is.”
Supervisor Steve Madrone opened his own speech by quoting Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind.” He said he was surprised to see that amid all the back-and-forth between different communities during the hearings, no one had questioned whether climate change is a real phenomenon.
“I look forward to all of you coming here and looking at putting that climate action plan together,” Madrone said.
The board’s denial loses the county millions of dollars in property and sales tax revenue over the next three decades. In its pitch, Terra-Gen had repeatedly said it would become the county’s second-highest taxpayer. The company had pushed for the project to be approved, since existing federal tax credits for wind energy will drop off at the end of the year.
After the meeting, Terra-Gen officials declined to immediately comment on the vote’s outcome. The company had agreed not to bring a lawsuit against Humboldt County in the event of a denial.
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