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Lompoc seeks $1 million from wind farm developers in counteroffer

The city of Lompoc will seek significantly more money – with fewer strings attached to it – than was proposed last month as part of an agreement with the developers of a wind farm project south of the city.

Strauss Wind LLC, had proposed a Community Benefits Agreement to the city in May that called for Strauss to pay the city $150,000 at the completion of the project if the city agreed to, among other things, not oppose any permits that Strauss sought from other government agencies.

The Lompoc City Council, which initially reviewed that proposal June 3, approved a counteroffer at its June 16 meeting that calls for Strauss to pay the city $1 million at the start of the project and removes any specific deadlines tied to that payment.

The counter proposal also allows the city to retain its right to oppose or legally challenge modifications to permits related to the project – but not the initial permit applications themselves – and removed language regarding mandatory binding arbitration, instead allowing the parties to enforce the agreement through the court system.

The City Council voted 5-0 to have City Manager Jim Throop and City Attorney Jeff Malawy take the proposal back to Strauss for further negotiations.

Michael McCormick, a representative of Strauss Wind, addressed the council at the June 16 meeting and said he felt that Strauss would be willing to at least discuss several aspects of the counteroffer – except for that $1 million payment.

“That’s not going to happen,” McCormick said, matter-of-factly, of Strauss approving the payment.

Community Benefits Agreements are fairly common between community groups and real estate developers. They typically require the developer to provide specific amenities and/or mitigations to the local community. In exchange, the community groups agree to publicly support the project, or at least not oppose it.

Prior to its proposal last month, Strauss had extended a $1 million offer to the city as part of an early draft of a Community Benefits Agreement, but Throop said he rejected that offer, without input from the City Council, due to elements that he felt weren’t in the city’s best interests.

McCormick, while speaking to the Lompoc City Council on June 16, noted that he had seen Lompoc deal with budget issues over the past two years and suggested that the $150,000 offer from Strauss – which was made because Strauss will be transporting its materials in large trucks on city streets – was a gift that could help the city with its financial problems.

“I find myself in a weird position where I’m being asked to negotiate a gift amount,” he said. “It’s a gift. I’m not buying anything; I’m not negotiating anything for it. We’re trying to give you money and I find it really cumbersome to try to encourage you to take the money … .”

Mayor Jenelle Osborne particularly took issue with the agreement being framed in that context.

“If this was just a gift, you could write a check [for] $150,000 and leave it tonight,” she said. “This is a payment for a legal waiver; that is why it requires an agreement. You are asking for something in exchange. So, yes, we’re going to ask for quite a lot and we’re going to go back to the original offer and at least start there because this is a major impact on our community.”

The money being discussed as part of the Community Benefits Agreement would be in addition to any road repairs or other improvements that Strauss would be required to pay for at the conclusion of the project.

Lompoc is not slated to receive any of the energy from the wind farm, which Strauss plans to have completed by December.

The project, which was approved by the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors in January, calls for erecting 29 wind turbine generators up to 492 feet tall, constructing an operation and maintenance building and an electrical substation at the site, a switch yard near Highway 1, and transmission lines from the substation to the switch yard.

It is estimated that the project will involve 161 to 203 “extremely oversized truck trips, and will require removal of traffic signal poles, trees, street lights, signs, and other items from the city right-of-way, Caltrans right-of-way, and the city-owned property located southwest of the intersection of Ocean Avenue and I Street,” according to a Lompoc city staff report.

Although Lompoc won’t directly benefit from the project, McCormick stressed during the June 16 discussion that the city’s economy had already been boosted by workers patronizing local hotels and restaurants, and he said that the wind farm’s maintenance workers would continue living in the Lompoc area. The project has an expected lifespan of at least 30 years.

Councilman Jim Mosby said he would have liked for the city to have been involved in an agreement with Santa Barbara County to share some of the property tax revenue the project is expected to bring the county. Further, Mosby noted that Lompoc’s public safety departments would likely be the primary first responders if there are any problems at the project site.

Mosby advised McCormick to “sharpen your pencil as best you can” when he and his colleagues at Strauss review the city’s counteroffer.

“I get it, it’s a big project,” Mosby said. “Do the best you can to get back to the table with us to understand where we’re coming from, as well.”