The Albany County Board of Commissioners approved updates to the county’s commercial wind energy siting regulations Tuesday morning while also making plans to consider further amendments during a future work session.
After a lengthy public hearing in which dozens of people weighed in for and against the proposed regulation updates, commissioners decided to approve the changes as presented so they can take effect right away even if the commission would like to make more changes.
Commissioners Sue Ibarra and Pete Gosar both expressed interest in making more changes in addition to those recommended by the Planning and Zoning Commission, which approved the draft amendments in November.
“I don’t know if the amendments have gone as far as they need to,” Ibarra said. “I’m torn right now.”
However, any substantive changes would require a 45-day public comment period before they could be approved. Without the commission approving the updates as presented, any permit applications submitted in the meantime would be held to existing regulations, which were last updated in 2010.
County Attorney Peggy Trent emphasized that the commission couldn’t hold an applicant to standards for a project outside its existing regulations, and an attempt to do so would probably be overturned.
“You have to have it in your regulations in order to hold a person accountable for that item,” she said.
The elephant in the room, of course, is the proposed Rail Tie Wind Project. Energy company ConnectGen has said it plans to submit an application to the county this spring for the 504-megawatt project. News of the project early last year sparked reconsideration of the county’s regulations in the first place.
Mitch Edwards, an attorney representing a group of landowners in the project area that oppose the project, suggested the commission consider a moratorium on wind energy development as it tinkers with its regulations.
“You’re ensuring that you give yourself time to properly consider the regulations and get them right the first time,” he said.
Trent said a moratorium would have a “chilling effect” on ConnectGen’s application with the state’s Industrial Siting Council.
“I’m apprehensive to consider that as an option,” she said. “I think a better approach is to move forward with what you have today.”
Commissioner Heber Richardson said he “takes great comfort” in the fact that the commission is bound by its own regulations.
“If someone can check off all the items on the list, and they’re still subject to the whims of the commission, then there’s no such thing as property rights and there’s no such thing as rules,” he said.
Gosar argued that the commission’s first duty is to provide for the general health and safety of the community.
“Regulations aren’t to protect the people from government, they’re to set a boundary between people, knowing that our property ends where the next one begins,” he said.
Richardson said that duty cannot supersede regulations, but must instead inform the creation of regulations.
“We don’t get to impose on a whim what we think the health, safety and general welfare is,” he said.
Among the amendments approved by the commission are new requirements for a noise study, at least $5 million in liability insurance for developers, routine compliance inspections and aircraft detection lighting systems. Albany County would be added as a beneficiary to bonds held by the state to cover reclamation expenses.
Additional concerns expressed through public comment included setbacks from residences and roads, the possible fire danger from turbines and access to the project area in case of wildfire.
Timothy Hunt said he purchased property last year and was undeterred by a wind project in the works, but he requested that county regulations require a more robust plan for structure fire suppression.
“This area is a tinder box,” he said.
Alan Minier said setbacks weren’t sufficient to protect motorists on adjacent roads from turbine ice throw.
“It is not going to be safe for the residents that are there,” he said.
Donna Lange said requiring a greater setback from a municipality than from a residence demonstrated unequal treatment for rural and urban residents.
“Rural residents are being treated differently, and there is less consideration for their health and safety,” she said.
During Tuesday’s public hearing, Nate Martin, director of Better Wyoming, said wind energy companies want to come to Albany County, which shouldn’t be taken for granted.
“We shouldn’t amend our regulations in such a way as to swat a hand that’s trying to help us,” he said.
Terry Cammon purchased 4,600 acres in the project area knowing a wind project could come to the area, and he expressed support for the regulations as presented.
“Energy isn’t free,” he said.
Matt Nagy said in an email that commissioners should embrace opportunities to diversify the county’s revenue streams.
“I personally think windmills are beautiful and love seeing the production of clean energy,” he said.
Opposition to the Rail Tie project continued Monday morning, when a couple dozen people held signs in front of the Albany County Courthouse in protest.
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