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State reverses decision, grants lease for wind farm in Albany County

The State Board of Land Commissioners voted to approve a lease for a proposed wind energy project on state land in Albany County on Thursday, effectively reversing its previous decision to not extend the lease in November.

Energy company ConnectGen applied to lease over 4,800 acres of Wyoming state land to construct a 500 megawatt wind farm, called the Rail Tie project. About one-fifth of the entire 26,000 acre project near the community of Tie Siding has been proposed for state land. The majority of the state land parcels fall in the southwest portion of the project, roughly six miles south of Interstate 80.

The developer expects the wind lease payments to provide about $20 million to the state during the project’s 35-year lifespan.

But throughout the past year, the Rail Tie wind project has captured the attention of both state residents and the wind energy industry at large, garnering both heated opposition and support.

Proponents consider the proposed energy development a vital source of revenue for the Wyoming’s education system, especially at a time when budget cuts and a recession have weakened the state’s fiscal outlook. Opponents fear the wind project will compromise viewsheds, private property values, public access to land and tourism.

On Nov. 5, the Board of Land Commissioners voted to not support a motion to lease to the company, after members of the public expressed concerns over the development.

But about one month later, the board decided to rescind its decision after the state auditor identified “new information” on the benefits of the project, according to Jason Crowder, deputy director of the Office of State Lands and Investments. (The board initially considered the lease application back on Oct. 1 but tabled the issue to November allow for additional public comment.)

All along, the director of the Office of State Lands and Investments had recommended the board approve the lease given “no substantive impairments” were identified to grazing and agricultural activities.

State Superintendent Jillian Balow said she initially voted to not support the motion to grant the lease in November, because she believed the project would move ahead with or without the state parcels.

“This ensured that there would be local taxes and revenue,” Balow said. “And it left the board open to negotiate for other leases for more revenue in the future.”

However, since that vote, Balow said she learned withholding the state parcels from the company could significantly impair the project. As a result, she feared local communities would not see the revenue and economic activity they needed.

“We’re seeking long-term growth and optimum and sustainable revenue,” Balow said before voting in favor of granting the lease on Thursday. “And the greatest benefit that we have before us for this land at this time is, in fact, executing this lease. So, therefore again I’ll be voting in favor of it.”

However, she called for the state to reform how it leases land to wind energy companies for development to ensure that Wyoming receives fair returns.

State Treasurer Curt Meier cast the lone vote against the motion to approve the lease on Thursday, saying he was still concerned the returns for the state were insufficient.

“I think we are better off to keep our powder dry and look at a more lucrative project in future years,” he said.

Before voting to approve the lease, the board introduced an amendment, requiring the company to commence construction within six years, as opposed to 12 years.

ConnectGen estimates the project will generate about $176 million in new tax revenues, in addition to jobs, economic activity and lease payments.

“We are pleased that yesterday the Board of Land Commissioners voted to approve the Rail Tie Wind Project lease, which will increase school funding through wind lease payments to the State of Wyoming that are expected to total $20 million over the life of the project,” Amanda MacDonald, project manager for the Rail Tie wind project, in a statement. “We look forward to continuing to work with the leadership and residents of Albany County and Wyoming to develop the Rail Tie Wind Project.”

Before breaking ground on the project, ConnectGen still needs to submit permit applications to Albany County and the state’s Industrial Siting Council. It also needs to complete a federal environmental review process. During those processes, there will be additional opportunities for public engagement.

At the conclusion of the state land board meeting on Thursday, Gov. Mark Gordon, who serves as board chair, requested the Office of State Lands and Investment staff compile more information on leasing and development trends related to wind energy in Wyoming to help the board better understand the process.