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State OK’s wind lease for 675-foot turbines near Laramie

State land commissioners voted 4-1 Thursday to lease 4,804 acres south of Laramie for a wind farm, rebuffing neighbors’ protest that up to 151 windmills as high as 675 feet would mar a natural and heritage-rich landscape.

The 40-year deal with ConnectGen would be part of a larger 26,000-acre development, 80% of which would be on private land. ConnectGen estimates the entire project will generate $45 million for the state and $131 million for Albany County for a total of $176 million over the life of the project. The leases themselves would bring about $21 million over 40 years, hearing attendees said.

The sprawling proposal around Tie Siding – a tiny community 18 miles south of Laramie – proposes 60 miles of new roads plus 105 miles of electrical collection lines, some of them on 50-foot poles, and substations. The Tie Siding project would build 16 or so rows of turbines a half mile apart on large blocks of rolling sagebrush land stretching 10 miles north from the Colorado border and 10 miles east-west.

The Rail Tie Wind Project boundaries are within two miles of Interstate 80. Project critics say the area – a mix of private and state-owned land – is the city’s best option for the kind of high-end residential development needed to attract University of Wyoming faculty and upscale business employees.

The project would hurt tourism, harm property values, bother wildlife and degrade scenery, critics say, including at the historic Ames Monument, which marks the highest point on the first railroad across the country.

“I will be moving if this project moves forward,” area resident Kirk Stone told the board.

The State Board of Land Commissioners – a panel made up of Wyoming’s governor, secretary of state, treasurer, auditor and superintendent of public instruction – heard conflicting information from supporters and critics regarding their duty as managers of school trust land, dedicated at statehood to benefit schools and several other state institutions. The board does not have a duty to lease the land, said Mitchell Edwards, an attorney who said he represented more than 60 landowners fighting the project.

But State Superintendent Jillian Balow said it is her duty to lease the land for the student beneficiaries and that the project represents “the greatest benefit for this land at this time.”

State Treasurer Curt Meier cast his dissenting vote because of landowner complaints, the potential for new wind development guidelines and future options that might hold more appeal. “I think we’re better off to keep our powder dry and look at a more lucrative project in future years,” he said.

The board decided the project poses no substantive impairment to existing agricultural and grazing leases on the state property, a necessary finding for the wind leases to advance. State lands director Jenifer Scoggin recommended approval of the deal.

Auditor Kristi Racines, Gov. Mark Gordon and Secretary of State Ed Buchanan joined Balow in the majority vote.

Quantum Energy Partners, a Houston-based energy investment company, owns the ConnectGen family of corporations, which were established in 2018. The 504-megawatt Rail Tie installation would connect to an existing transmission line owned by the Western Area Power Administration, Platte River Power Authority and the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Authority. WAPA is preparing an environmental impact statement on the plan, an examination critics said should have been completed before the state committed its property.

WAPA has said the wind farm is located in a “sparsely populated area [with a] relatively low probability of substantial natural resources conflicts.”

Commissioners heard supporters’ and critics’ opposing views on how state action would affect ConnectGen’s plans. State rejection would stall the plan, some said, while others warned that Wyoming’s land would become unused islands in an otherwise profitable venture if land commissioners decided not to lease. Rail Tie could be operational by the end of 2022, ConnectGen states in project descriptions.

Laramie County School District 1 trustee Marguerite Herman told the land board its fiduciary responsibilities lay with the schools. “This is not public land,” she said, “it’s trust land.”

Area residents criticized the industrialization of the landscape, saying the larger, new generation turbines – whose blades reach up to 675 above the ground – are on the scale of Devils Tower. Proposed 6-megawatt turbines would come within 200 feet of the 867-foot height of that igneous butte, area resident Jennifer Kirchhoefer wrote the land board.

Wyoming’s Capitol building measures 146 feet from grade to spire. The tallest building in the state – White Hall at the University of Wyoming – is 200 feet high. One commenter said the tall turbines and their blades would be 73% higher than conventional windmills that reach to 390 feet.