Last Thursday evening's public scoping meeting on the county's proposed "Energy Overlay Zone" may have raised more questions than it answered.
Only about 15 citizens attended the event, held at the Klickitat County Courthouse in Goldendale, and some of those who made it wondered why there weren't a lot more people showing up.
"I am upset we're not following an appropriate process for such a major change that will affect all of us," said Rachel Haymon, a Trout Lake resident. "By the time the public has a chance to weigh in on this, the train has already left the station and we've spent a lot of money."
The meeting was designed to give individual citizens an opportunity to list issues they believe need to be analyzed as part of the upcoming Environmental Impact Study (EIS) for the proposed Energy Overlay Zone.
Dana Peck, director of the county's Economic Development Department, said the meeting accomplished its objectives.
"It's really good to do a scoping meeting, to air concerns," Peck said. "I think that was accomplished. Now we'll go back and make sure we address those concerns. The next step is, our technical consultants will incorporate those concerns into the outline of the EIS, and the draft EIS will be available for public review in mid-September. If we hold to our current schedule, there will be another public hearing in the first week of October."
According to Peck, the Energy Overlay Zone is designed to streamline regulatory approval of potential energy-generating plants sited within the county.
County Commissioner Joan Frey said she believed the zoning change could benefit the county in several ways.
"It'll help determine where we feel these projects are going to be best suited for the county. It takes a lot of hit and miss out of the process," Frey said. "And it shows cooperation between the county and energy companies. The state of Washington is getting a reputation as being overly-regulatory and discouraging companies from investing here with efficient energy projects, so this is a way to say, `look at us.'"
Frey said wind generation projects in particular could have a positive outcome for county residents.
"Wind power offers an opportunity for farmers and ranchers to supplant their revenues so they can stay in agriculture," Frey explained. "It's an opportunity for energy businesses to come in, and they assist on the tax base as well."
Peck said the county is receiving inquiries from businesses interested in developing energy projects, and from wind power developers in particular.
But Haymon said the Energy Overlay Zone proposal, if adopted, could mean the end of private citizens being able to halt an unwanted energy project near their residences.
"If this plan goes through, a company won't have to get a conditional use permit for a power plant," she warned. "If you have an objection to a project, there would be no way to make an objection. Right now we have processes in place, but this will remove those protections. Maybe there's a good reason to do this, but the county hasn't made the case. I hope we can slow the process down so people can look into this."
Chris Connolly, a Snowden resident, also attended the meeting. Connolly said she was concerned that there is too little information about how the energy zone could affect county residents getting out to the public.
The Klickitat County Planning Department has set a July 5 deadline for written comments about the proposed energy zoning.
"There is no information out there. What are we commenting on? What do we respond to?" she said. "No place else has an Energy Overlay Zone, so how do we know what the plan is?"
Peck said that because of comments received at the Thursday meeting, the county may add one or two weeks to the July 5 comment period. However, that decision was not final as of press time on Tuesday.
Curt Dreyer, director of the county's Planning Department, said he understood many of the concerns raised by citizens at the June 27 meeting.
"It's difficult for the public to comment," Dreyer said. "Usually we have a specific proposal, with `x' number of square feet and `x' number of hours a generator will be running, that type of thing. Whereas with this proposal, it is in very broad terms to amend the county's comprehensive plan and develop regulations to provide for energy projects. At the stage we have a draft EIS, it'll be more recognizable."
According to county officials, there will be another public hearing on the draft EIS, then a written comment period after that regarding possible amendments to the county's comprehensive plan.
"I'd like to see something this important go to a county-wide referendum. Everybody's property is going to be affected," Connolly said.
Frey said she supported the proposed Energy Overlay Zone concept.
"I think it's a very pro-active, sophisticated position for our county to take, to get ahead of the game instead of always reacting," she explained.
"The message lost in this is that in the course of doing the EIS, we'll be identifying sensitive areas that shouldn't be developed by energy interests," Peck added. "We'll establish criteria before projects are proposed instead of reacting once they are proposed. That's the big change."
In June, the Klickitat County Planning Department issued a "determination of significance" that acknowledges the overlay zoning proposal could bring significant changes to county regulations. According to an excerpt from the Planning Department's document, the plan would: "... amend the county's comprehensive plan and development regulations, including the redesignation and rezone of land throughout the county. The goal of the environmental review is to assist in the evaluation of how and whether to amend the comprehensive plan and development regulations to provide for the development of energy resources in Klickitat County."
For 2002, the county has budgeted $386,000 for the proposed creation of a county-wide Energy Overlay Zone. A similar figure is projected for spending on the zoning project for 2003.
Haymon voiced concerns about what she saw as a fast-track process she believed the proposal was being given.
"The county has dragged its feet for years on adopting its Critical Areas ordinance -- even spending money to fight the state over it," Haymon said. "Now all of a sudden the county is in a large rush to push through this Energy Overlay Zone. What bugged me the most is how backward the process is. The County Commissioners haven't asked the people if they are in favor of this zoning. I'm very much against the commissioners going forward to spend our money without asking our opinion if this is good for Klickitat County, and if it's what we want."
Peck said he didn't think those concerns were valid, because the meetings are designed to take public input.
"I don't know where those concerns come from," Peck said. "This was the kickoff meeting for the process."
Dreyer said the process was moving quickly for a legitimate reason.
"It appears to be an aggressive schedule, but we're working off existing information rather than collecting new information, and it doesn't take the same amount of time as collecting the data would," Dreyer explained.