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Controversial Rail Tie Wind Project wins county approval

After months of uncertainty and heated public debate, the Albany County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously on Tuesday to grant a key permit to the Rail Tie Wind Project – with a few conditions.

The proposed 504 megawatt wind farm would include up to 94 turbines built on private land and another 26 on state land. The entire project area spans nearly 26,000 acres, approximately 80% of which is privately owned. The remaining, state-owned land was an early sticking point for the project.

In November, the State Board of Land Commissioners denied the project developer’s lease application for more than 4,800 acres of state land. It then reversed course and approved the lease in January.

Albany County’s commissioners voted 2-1 in April to accept the Rail Tie permit application from its developer, Houston-based renewable energy firm ConnectGen. Commissioner Pete Gosar voted otherwise, citing outstanding letters of consent to construct from some surface property owners.

In mid-May, the county Planning and Zoning Commission voted 5-0 to recommend approval of ConnectGen’s application. The county Board of Commissioners heard public comments about the project on June 1.

Homeowners’ group Albany County for Smart Energy Development was a particularly vocal opponent. Ranchers, energy workers and many other residents coalesced in favor of the project. Both sides have campaigned tirelessly for their respective causes.

“I hold no idea that I’ll make a perfect decision tonight. I know I’ll make an informed decision tonight,” Gosar said on Tuesday, referencing the ongoing debate. Before voting on the permit, he and the other commissioners raised several lingering concerns about turbine placement and safety.

Commissioner Sue Ibarra advocated for the additional conditions, which she said were essential for protecting homeowners, but also stressed the project’s global significance.

“My primary concern is ultimately about renewable energy, and the urgent need to take some serious steps to address climate change,” she said.

State law requires regulators to approve proposals that meet all provisions, an obligation Commissioner Heber Richardson said cemented his decision.

“I believe in the rule of law, and I think that the Albany County wind regulations are adequate. I understand people’s distaste for it, and I also understand the citizenry who support it, but I’m not inclined to rule by fiat,” he said.

The stipulations agreed upon by county commissioners and the project’s developer include a one-mile setback of turbines from all non-participating residences and a setback from all county and public roads of 1.5 times the height of the nacelle plus the diameter of the blade.

ConnectGen also committed to conducting all blasting during the day, at noise levels below the county limit; installing fire suppression technology in the turbines; making a good faith effort to receive approval from the Federal Aviation Association to incorporate aircraft detection lighting systems and providing support to any residents affected by shadow flicker from turbine blades.

Amanda MacDonald, a project manager for the company, told the commissioners that ConnectGen would ensure that the promises it made in exchange for permit approval would also be met by any future project purchasers.

Rail Tie will require a number of additional permits and agreements prior to construction, including major reviews at the state level by the Industrial Siting Division and at the federal level under the National Environmental Policy Act. The Wyoming Industrial Siting Council is scheduled to hold a public comment hearing for Rail Tie in Laramie from July 19-21.