Wind farm proposals move forward

By Terri Harber December 04, 2013 09:26 am

Baker City Herald file photo A company is moving ahead with its plan to build two wind farms near Huntington.
Baker City Herald file photo A company is moving ahead with its plan to build two wind farms near Huntington.

By Terri Harber

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Developers planning to build two wind farms on private property in Baker County are trying to complete enough work this year to qualify for state and federal tax credits. 

“We’re moving along,” said Robert Guertin, a spokesman for Oregon Wind Farms Inc. “We’re fairly confident we’ll meet all of the requirements."

These are the main parts of the project:

• The Huntington site is about 4 miles northwest of the city and off of Malheur Lane, Durbin Creek Lane and Interstate 84. A cellphone tower sits on one of the lots and the entire location is more than 4,000 acres of exclusive farm use zone property. It’s used for grazing.

• The Lime site also is within an industrial zone, about 4.5 miles northeast of Lime. It’s more than 4,200 acres are zoned for exclusive farm and industrial uses.

• The two wind farms would share a substation that needs to be constructed.

Maximum capacity at the wind farm near Huntington would be 20 megawatts, from a proposed 12 turbines. The Lime site would produce 30 megawatts from 12 to 18 turbines.

Focus is on building the substation. Guertin described construction this year as being “limited” to that structure.   

Opponents believe the wind farms would have a negative impact on recreational uses and tourism.

The county planning commissioners agreed, voting to reject Guertin’s application for conditional-use permits.

But in October the county commissioners overturned the planning commission.

County commissioners made their decision past the state-imposed time limit of 150 days from application to decision about the permits, however. 

The developers filed a writ of mandamus with the Baker County Circuit Court on Sept. 24, before the October meeting when the final decision was announced.

If the county commissioners hadn’t announced a decision before the hearing reached the court, then the judge might have had to decide. 

The judge also could have sent it back to the county commissioners for them to reach a decision. 

“We wish it had been quicker,” Guertin said. “But it’s a process we’re familiar with.”

Planning Commissioner Randy Joseph said the complexity of the project itself along with the large number of interested citizens were among things that made the decision process lengthy.

Opponents — most of whom are from in and around Baker City — came to the earlier hearings.

Supporters of the wind farm, many from the Lime and Huntington areas, made their presence known near the end of the process. 

“The final decision — the one accepted by the county commissioners — had to be written by staff,” Joseph said. “And that took time. They did a very thorough job.”

Joseph owns the county’s only operating wind farm — six turbines on public land north of Huntington.

County officials weren’t involved in that proposal because it was on federal property managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

Some of the Guertin’s proposed sites for wind turbines are in core sage grouse habitat. A wildlife habitat study was started several months ago and should be complete in spring 2014.

The planning commissioners’ decision to require Guertin to work with the  Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife on sage grouse habitat protection — if needed — wasn’t supported by county code. And the ODFW doesn’t have policing authority on private land.  

Oregon Wind Farms principals argued that their efforts to avoid the sage grouse and other species actually aren’t required because the land on which the turbines would operate is privately owned.

They will discuss possible forms of mitigation before construction occurs, Guertin said.

With these types of projects, “we try to have minimal impacts,” he said. “We’ll address as many concerns as we can.”

Planning commissioners and the county planning department staff have been working on regulations for future wind farm development.

Members of the planning commission have been having “healthy arguments,” said Alice Trindle, who chairs the commission.

And the process they went through with the Lime-Huntington project is providing them with information on how to proceed with these new rules.

The county’s current zoning rules don’t allow for such projects as wind farms. Revised rules will cover some of these concerns.

The writing process won’t be complete until next year, however, she said.

Any rules would have to be approved by the board of commissioners before becoming county code.

The entire project should be completed before the end of 2014, Guertin added.