County rules out big wind turbines in most areas

More than two years ago, would-be wind power entrepreneur Terry Meyer touched off a Whatcom County controversy when he approached a Squalicum Mountain property owner to discuss leasing a site for the installation of a large turbine.

When nearby property owners heard about it, they headed for County Council chambers to plead for an emergency moratorium on such projects. Council members approved the moratorium 6-1 and directed county staff to review the county’s 2008 ordinance that had allowed construction of big, commercial-size wind turbines in many areas of the county, subject to conditions.

That was in February 2010. On Nov. 7, 2012, after staff work, Planning Commission review and public hearings, the council voted 5-1 to approve a new wind power ordinance that restricts large turbines to the heavy industrial area that now includes two oil refineries, the Alcoa Intalco Works aluminum smelter and the SSA Marine Gateway Pacific Terminal property.

“That ordinance is my biggest disappointment so far in my time on the County Council,” said Ken Mann, who cast the lone vote against both the moratorium and the ordinance. “It’s entirely too restrictive. I find all of the reasons to be opposed to wind energy systems to be overstated, inaccurate or hypocritical. … If we want to be self-reliant, we should be striving to produce our own energy.”

As Crawford sees it, a big wind turbine atop a 300-foot tower is, in fact, a type of heavy industry. Restricting those towers to existing heavy industrial zones is sensible policy, he said.

The 2008 ordinance allowed big turbines to be constructed in a much wider area of the county now zoned for forestry or agriculture. But those areas also have family homes, and Crawford doesn’t think it’s fair to expect residents of those homes to live near large power generators.

Crawford also contends that the towers could mar scenic vistas if they sprout along the county’s ridgelines, where wind conditions may be optimal.

“The idea that we’re going to cover our ridgelines with these, I think we need to be very cautious about that,” Crawford said. “Once they are there, they may be there for a very long time.”

But as Mann sees it, the flap over wind power in lands zoned for forestry or agriculture is symptomatic of larger problems with county land-use policies. Lands zoned for rural or commercial forestry, or for agriculture, are intended for money-making use of local resources, and people who choose to live in those zones need to expect to live with some level of resource-related activity in their neighborhood. But it doesn’t always work that way.

“So now we have people who live out there and think it’s suburbia instead of resource lands,” Mann said. “We’re sort of paying the price now for having allowed a lot of residential development in our resource lands. … They have moved into resource lands and then they complain about it.”

Mann said it’s reasonable for a county wind power ordinance to include measures that protect nearby property owners from unpleasant side effects. But he said that could have been done without an outright prohibition.


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