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Bucking a staff recommendation, the Shasta County Planning Commission late Tuesday night unanimously rejected the use permit for a controversial wind farm project planned for the Intermountain area just west of Burney.
Commissioners sided with opponents who said the Fountain Wind project’s impact on the environment, the scenery and the potential long-term harm it would do to the area’s economy outweighed the benefits of the massive wind farm.
The 5-0 vote capped a marathon meeting that went nearly 10 hours and ended just before 11 p.m. The unanimous vote was met with cheers from those opponents who were still in the audience at the Shasta College theater.
Soon after the vote, Henry Woltag, the project’s manager, told the Record Searchlight the company will appeal the planning commission’s decision to the Shasta County Board of Supervisors. A day and time for the appeal has yet to be determined.
‘Not the right location’
Commissioners were especially moved by Pit River Tribe members who said the wind farm would desecrate sacred tribal lands and bring more economic hardship to their community.
Commissioner Steven Kerns said he spoke to a friend who’s a Pit River member about their culture and how it would be affected. Kerns said the ridge tops where the wind turbines would be built are sacred land to the Native Americans.
“It’s their Gettysburg,” Kerns said before the 5-0 vote, asking the audience how they would feel if we decided to build a wind farm on that sacred Civil War battlefield.
Commissioner Donn Walgamuth, a painting contractor who supports builders and development, said there are things that take precedence over jobs.
Walgamuth said he has a problem with people telling Native Americans what they can and can’t do on their land, referring to the Redding Rancheria’s struggle to relocate its casino in Redding.
“But when people outside come in and tell them you need to accept something on your land, I think it’s wrong,” he said. “I don’t believe this is the right project … and definitely not the right location.”
Commissioner Tim MacLean suggested maybe downsizing the wind farm would be a better fit for the location.
“So can they still hit their (energy) goal with fewer turbines?” he said. “I’m struggling with the project as proposed.”
Patrick Wallner, who chairs the planning commission, called Tuesday’s meeting the most intense in the eight years he’s been on the commission.
“It’s very difficult for me to support a project that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” Wallner said.
What the Pit River tribe said in opposing the wind farm
The Pit River tribe were among several groups that made presentations to object to the wind farm.
Agnes Gonzalez, chairwoman of the Pit River Tribe, said the project would be detrimental to her members’ mental health and hurt access to “sacred waters and streams.” The project site is near Pit River tribal lands.
“This project would infringe on the tribe’s freedom of religion and cultural practices,” Gonzalez said, adding that the project site is within a place of refuge for the tribe. “Tribal artifacts have already been discovered near the construction site.”
Michelle LaPena, the attorney representing the tribe, said that despite what some believe, property values in the area will dwindle due to the project and exacerbate economic hardships for tribal members.
One tribal member said a project like Fountain Wind would never be built on a veterans cemetery or a church.
Trade unions back construction of wind farm
Those who spoke in support of the project included union groups who said many of their members in Shasta County travel out of town to find work, and the Fountain Wind project would give them a chance to work and stay home.
Andrew Meredith of the California State Building and Construction Trades Council said the wind farm is the type of project “that can put hundreds of construction workers” on the job “making fair living wages.” He said his group has more than 3,100 members, including 300 apprentices, in Shasta County.
The Fountain Wind project is proposed on 4,464 acres of timberland property about 6 miles west of Burney.
ConnectGen LLC wants to lease property from a private landowner to construct up to 71 wind turbines with a capacity to generate up to 216 megawatts of electricity, according to the county planning department. The electricity generated would be enough to power more than 86,000 California homes, according to the project’s website.
Woltag, the ConnectGen project manager for Fountain Wind, said the company has a labor agreement with the California building trades to help assure the construction jobs are local. He added that once built, the $300 million project would provide 12 full-time jobs.
If project was approved this summer, Woltag told the planning commission that tree clearing and grading at the site would start next spring with a project completion date of late 2023.
The Fountain Wind project would dwarf the existing Hatchet Ridge wind farm.
The up to 71 turbines could be up to 679 feet tall, from base to blade tip. By comparison, Shasta Dam is 602 feet tall, and the turbines on Hatchet Ridge near Burney are 418 feet tall.
Raising wildfire concerns
One of the chief concerns of opponents who live in the area around the proposed project is how it will increase the risk of wildfire and make it more difficult to fight fires.
But ConnectGen and others who spoke in support of the project refuted those arguments.
Woltag said the turbines will be equipped with fire suppression technology that will include smoke detectors that can trigger a forced shutdown of the turbines in event of fire.
Darin Quigley, who retired from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and works on the Northern California Fire Council, said the roads that will be created around the project will create fire breaks.
“More roads means a quicker response time for firefighters,” Quigley said.
But Montgomery Creek resident Larry Johnson told commissioners that their biggest concern should be that they would be taking thousands of acres of high-risk timberland “and you’re negating aerial firefighting.”
Before Johnson spoke, Jim Barnes of the Associated Aerial Firefighters said trying to navigate around wind turbines while fighting a fire from the air is extremely difficult: “It’s a losing proposition trying to fight a fire in a turbine field.”
His opinion was different than what is in the project’s environmental impact report.
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