Klickitat County's plan to create an "energy overlay zone" to streamline regulatory approval of possible energy development projects has entered a new phase.
Dana Peck, director of the county's Economic Development Department, said his office sent out "pre-consultation letters" last week. The letters are going to agencies and interested parties, including the Washington Audubon Society, Washington Fish & Wildlife agency, and tribal representatives, among others.
Peck said the letters represent an important information-gathering step.
"This process is a way of building an outline from scratch for public input," Peck explained.
He added that a public hearing on the proposed energy overlay zone is planned to be held within the next two months.
The energy overlay process is designed to generate a zoning map, zoning text to describe uses permitted in specified zones, and an amendment to the county's comprehensive plan to facilitate the new zoning.
According to Peck, the planned energy zoning effort is a first.
"At least to the Pacific Northwest, this is a unique effort," Peck explained. "No one has sat down in advance and said, here's where the appropriate sites are and where the inappropriate sites are [for power generating facilities]."
Curt Dreyer, director of the Klickitat County Planning Department, said the overlay zoning would be in addition to current zones.
"In other words, agricultural or residential could have a zone placed on top of that to allow uses related to energy generation," Dreyer said. "If an overlay zone were to be placed over a residential area, specified energy uses in residential zones could be allowed. But it's more than likely the zones affected would be agricultural, timber, and open space. There is a lot of general rural land around the county also that might be possible for an energy overlay."
Dreyer added that both the Planning Department and the Economic Development Department are working on the new energy zoning formula.
"The process may result in quicker review time for land use, and the economic development part of this is Dana's and the County Commissioners' objective to have development that provides for jobs. And wind energy in particular is a very clean industry," Dreyer explained. "The Planning Department will have a larger hand in the process as it goes into the environmental review phase."
Dreyer said, however, that he is not aware of what the project is costing the county.
"I'm not handling that, that is between Dana and the County Commissioners," he said. "I have not even seen the contracts. It's not part of the Planning Department budget."
Peck said the county's 2002 budget for work on the energy overlay zone totals about $386,000. That covers "production of the environmental impact statement (EIS)," with $89,000 specifically for avian studies, $15,000 for a water rights study, and the balance for the EIS.
To date, three contracts have been authorized for contractors with special expertise in environmental issues.
According to Peck, the money comes out of the county's cumulative reserve, and is being budgeted jointly for the Economic Development Department and the Planning Department.
"We're looking at environmental impacts, but there may be other issues such as sensitive species of plants or animals, habitat conservation areas, and the location of state or county parks," Dreyer said. "We're looking at cultural issues, air quality issues, or even for example if a project would be highly visible or close to residences, it might not work. We're looking at a number of issues."
The county wants to have energy zoning decisions made by early winter or late fall.
Peck noted that the project timeline had been pushed back a bit.
"We had hoped to get this done by October, but now it's pushed out to November or December," Peck said.
"The contracts for the consultants were just approved," Dreyer said. "We're still at the very first stages, and there will be a public scoping meeting at some point and a time period to allow written comments."
Brian Skeahan, manager of the Klickitat Public Utility District, said the energy overlay zone idea has merit.
"Conceptually, it's a good idea, but the devil is in the details," Skeahan said. "If done right, it makes some sense. It could be a good thing for everybody to identify the sites using a multitude of criteria: access to gas lines, wind sites, compatibility with land use, environmental acceptability, and public acceptance. Where they end up going with it, however, is the key."
Peck said there would be significant benefits to creation of the energy overlay zoning.
"The benefits to all parties are the same," Peck said. "A developer who comes into an area without this in place tends to do his own site selection. This process would exclude those sites that have environmental concerns before they are ever considered for projects. Sites are pre-screened for them, so they won't focus their resources and fall in love with sites that are inappropriate with what's being considered. It provides a framework for where development should go and shouldn't go."
An 11-member Energy Overlay Advisory Board appointed to guide the zoning proposal was named on March 11. The board includes Dana Peck, Curt Dreyer, Larry Bellamy, Jason Spadaro, Kevin Davis, Wayne Eshelman, Jim Miller, Sandra Powers, Cheryl Woods, Russ Rasmussen, and Cheryl Davenport.
Earlier this month, however, two new members were added -- Tom Svendsen of the Klickitat PUD, and Paul Wooden of Northwestern Wind Power.
Skeahan said he didn't know why a Public Utility District representative wasn't included from the beginning.
"Dana Peck made the appointments, you'll have to ask him," Skeahan said.
Peck said he was happy with the individuals involved in the project.
"It's a group of technical professionals coordinating real smoothly," Peck said.