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Albany County residents deliver petition urging regulatory overhaul for wind energy

A group of Albany County residents concerned about potential wind energy development in their communities delivered a petition to the county clerk this week, urging commissioners to update siting regulations to ensure public safety and natural resources in the region.

Standing outside the county courthouse at 10 a.m. Monday, leaders of a new group called Albany County for Smart Energy Development held a press conference to announce the delivery of 1,224 signatures in support of the petition to county officials.

“Albany County’s current Industrial Wind Energy Regulations do NOT adequately protect the county’s natural resources, nor do they ensure the health, safety, and quality of life of the residents, businesses, and recreational users in proximity of these facilities,” the petition stated. “I request the county immediately review and amend existing regulations.”

According to member Paul Montoya, the group is not entirely against new wind or solar development. Rather, it wants county leaders to adopt more stringent review processes before approving the construction of renewable energy in the community.

“This petition is not a referendum, and we only use it to demonstrate to the county the desire of its residents to add protection for its residents, natural resources and future generations through properly locating industrial wind turbines in this county,” Montoya told reporters during Monday’s news conference streamed online. “We’ve seen the expansive growth of industrial wind plants in adjacent counties and feel this is a great opportunity for our county leadership to move forward in proper planning.”

Specifically, the group hopes to increase the buffer zones between future wind energy facilities and schools as well as national and state parks, along with some sensitive wildlife habitats.

However, renewable energy developers have said the proposed changes could significantly hinder the future growth of wind energy in the county.

Back in July, the Albany County Planning and Zoning Commission decided to not recommend sweeping changes to wind energy regulations in the near term, voting instead to support minimal amendments proposed by the county’s planning department. The commission held the special session in July to consider existing wind energy development guidelines. The meeting came in response to some landowners’ opposition to a potential wind energy project proposed for the southeast part of the county.

The proposed regulatory overhaul would have effectively blocked all future wind development in the county by substantially increasing setback requirements, according to testimony. But the board did vote 4-1 to allow the county’s planning department to draft minor revisions to align the county’s regulations with the state’s.

The controversy comes as a new 504-megawatt wind farm stretching across 26,000 acres of private and state land in southeast Albany County could come online as soon as 2022.

Some landowners and county residents have come out in opposition to the project, citing the project’s disruptions to scenic views, property values and public safety, among other concerns.

The Rail Tie Wind Project would include up to 151 wind turbines on both sides of Highway 287 just outside Tie Siding and generate enough energy to power over 180,000 homes. Construction could start in the fall of 2021, if the project meets necessary federal and state regulations.

Houston-based renewable energy company ConnectGen will serve as the wind farm’s developer. Rail Tie marks the firm’s first project in Wyoming.

Amanda MacDonald, Rail Tie’s project manager declined to comment directly on the petitioners demands. However, MacDonald did emphasize the fairness and safety of the company’s proposed wind project.

“We hope that Albany County maintains balanced wind regulations that enable responsibly sited wind projects, and avoids making changes that would inadvertently block future wind development in the County,” MacDonald said in a statement.

Albany County Planning Director David Gertsch presented amendments to the county’s wind energy siting regulations to bring them more in line with the state’s at a public meeting on Tuesday.

“ConnectGen is supportive of these changes, which bring the County’s regulations into compliance with recent changes to the state’s regulations,” MacDonald said.

After several hours of public testimony for and against the expansion of wind energy in the county, commissioners adopted amendments to a zoning resolution affecting the siting of wind energy on Tuesday.

Commissioner adopted the minor amendments in an effort to bring the zoning resolution in line with recently revised state statutes.

Though the changes did not address the Albany County for Smart Energy Development‘s more significant demands, Montoya told the Star-Tribune the county’s planning and zoning commission has continued to consider more sweeping revisions to the county wind regulations.