Several years of planning, hearings, and controversy may finally be resolved next Tuesday.
The proposed Energy Overlay Zone (EOZ) will be before the Klickitat County Board of Commissioners on March 8, and a decision is likely to be rendered at that time.
"The board is considering this now, and will possibly be making a decision at that meeting," said Curt Dreyer, director of the Klickitat County Planning Department.
On Feb. 17, the County Commissioners held a final public hearing to take testimony for and against the proposal. That hearing was continued to Tuesday, March 8, when the board is expected to decide one way or another on the fate of the EOZ after open delibertaions.
The EOZ is designed to streamline the permitting porcess on specifice energy facilties, thereby enticing energy developers who could bring an increased tax base for the county, along with potential job gains.
Those opposed to the proposal believe it would be unwise to fast-track energy development, or to allow existing zoning to be superseded by the EOZ.
County Commissioner Don Struck said he believes the commissioners will take a final vote at next week's session, and pointed out that a key change from the original EOZ proposal is likely to be supported by the commission.
"I fully expect the board to take out gas turbines and bio-mass facilities," Struck explained. "That is pretty squarely behind the public's recommendations."
If those sources are removed, wind power and solar resources would be the principal sources to be supported under the EOZ.
"Those are two major green power sources," Struck noted.
The commissioners recently received the Klickitat County Planning Commission's recommendation on the EOZ, and have been considering those recommendations as well as extensive public comments.
"We've had a couple weeks to review all the testimony," said Struck.
In the Planning Commission's findings, several benefits of wind and solar power were seen.
Wind energy has significant potential economic benefits for the county ... boosting tax revenue, providing some employment, and encouraging the retention of agricultural and ranching uses. Because wind projects have no air emissions, they are a clean way to obtain energy;
Solar energy is a clean energy resource with no air emissions. Landowners who install solar panels can expect some return on their investment from reduced electric bills;
A significant portion of southern Klickitat County was included in the preferred alternative for wind and solar projects. This location avoids many of the more forested areas in the northern portion of the county and encourages greater use of the county's wind and solar potential.
In its conclusions, the nine-member Planning Commission supported solar, wind, and a "limited geographic alternative" for bio-mass facilities.
Conversely, the natural gas fired plants were not considered favorably.
"There was specific public comment with respect to the environmental impacts associated with natural gas, particularly to the air and water," read one of the commission's findings. "Natural gas facilities emit a wide range of air pollutants and greater attention to water quality impacts is required ... because of this, the Planning Commission recommends against adopting the EOZ for natural gas, which would encourage a greater number of such projects."
In its recommendations, the Planning Commission pointed to the economic and environmental benefits of wind and solar energy. The commission also recommended adopting EOZ-related amendments to the "Comprehensive Plan and development regulations."
However, the commission ruled against the highly controversial gas-fired plants.
"Natural gas should not be included in the EOZ," read the commission's recommendation. "Bio-mass should be included only as identified in the limited geographic alternative for that area currently zoned industrial park or general industrial in the Bingen vicinity south of State Route 14."
The Planning Commission voted 6-0 (three members were absent) to pass these recommendations on to the Klickitat County Board of Commissioners.
After dealing with the EOZ project for nearly three years, Struck said he was glad to have the end of the decision-making process -- which cost approximately $500,000 -- finally in sight.
"I'm really glad to put it behind us," he said. "It was a lot more expensive than I anticipated. It was a major expense, the preparation of the EIS and all those studies. But if we site a couple wind power projects, it will pay it back pretty quickly. It sure will generate more money for fire districts and that type of thing."
Struck pointed out that the EOZ process has already had an impact. He noted that there are several wind power facilities proposed in the Bickleton area.
"At least two of those projects came about partly because we were undertaking the EOZ," Struck said.
Struck added that there is a possibility of expansion if the initial investments pay off.
"If these prove successful, it will open the door for other projects to come in," he explained.