The Albany County Board of Commissioners voted 3-0 Tuesday night to approve ConnectGen’s application for a wind energy conversion systems permit for the Rail Tie Wind Project.
The Rail Tie project calls for 120 turbines on 26,000 acres near Tie Siding, with 94 turbines proposed for private land and the rest on state property. Turbines would be almost 600 feet tall. ConnectGen is also seeking federal and state permits for the project.
In giving their approval, commissioners Sue Ibarra and Pete Gosar added several stipulations, which were agreed to by ConnectGen project manager Amanda MacDonald.
Their requests included a one-mile turbine setback from non-participating residences, and a turbine setback from public roads of 1.5 times the turbine height plus the blade diameter. Albany County’s regulations allow commissioners to modify setback distances at their discretion.
“I, too, find the turbines visually intriguing, but they can also be intimidating,” Ibarra said. “Having one only 3,700 feet from my front or back door would be too close.”
Gosar requested that aircraft detection lighting systems be installed on turbines or else ConnectGen seek a variance from the commission. Such systems ensure that blinking red lights atop turbines would come on at night only when an aircraft is in the vicinity.
ConnectGen has said it is pursuing the use of such systems, but approval can only be granted by the Federal Aviation Administration and will depend on final engineering, which hasn’t been conducted yet.
“A good faith effort isn’t quite enough for me,” Gosar said. “The university has been here and has determined that night skies are important for a grant that they would like to maintain. That’s a fair arrangement – if you cannot secure ADLS, you petition to the county for a variance for those turbines, or you remove them from the project.”
ConnectGen agreed to install fire suppression systems on turbine nacelles, to conduct blasting operations during daylight hours only, and to follow through with a required road use and maintenance agreement.
“We’re going to have to see something as a condition of acceptance that is reasonable, useful and accurate for how the blades and nacelles and parts will be moved,” Gosar said.
The company agreed to work with homeowners who take issue with sound levels or shadow flicker on their property, and it promised that all such agreements would be carried through to the purchaser, should the project be sold.
Ibarra said hers was a difficult decision, but it finally came down to prioritizing environmental considerations, even ahead of potential economic benefits for the county.
“My primary concern is ultimately about renewable energy and the urgent need to take some serious steps to address climate change,” she said.
Commissioner Heber Richardson said he intended to vote for the project because he believes in the rule of law.
“I think that the Albany County wind regulations are adequate,” he said. “I understand distaste for it, and I also understand the citizenry who support it. I’m not inclined to rule by fiat.”
Gosar urged ConnectGen to be considerate of nearby residents.
“It isn’t just about the dollar,” he said. “Being a good neighbor is important.”
Tuesday’s meeting concluded an 18-month process for the county, which included a five-hour public hearing June 1 during which dozens of residents made passionate arguments for and against the project.
Paul Montoya, who has been a vocal opponent of the project since it was announced in early 2020, and who owns a bed and breakfast near the northern edge of the project area, said he was disappointed by the decision.
“The commissioners demonstrated that they don’t care about the well-being of Albany County residents and protecting the county’s natural resources,” he wrote in a statement. “We will be placing our bed and breakfast up for sale in the upcoming weeks, as Albany County does not protect small business and only considers the interests of big energy. This will, unfortunately, eventually be the ruin of Albany County if leadership changes are not made soon.”
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