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Energy Overlay Zone Wins County Approval

Final vote for adoption will take place March 15

After more than two years of consideration and controversy, the Klickitat County Board of Commissioners has made its decision regarding the Energy Overlay Zone (EOZ).

With a 3-0 vote on March 8, the commissioners approved the EOZ, with major changes from its original form.

"It's finalized. We'll basically sign our names to it and adopt the ordinance and findings of fact on Tuesday (March 15)," explained County Commissioner Don Struck.

The county proposed an energy overlay in which specified energy uses would be allowed outright in certain areas of the county, if properly mitigated. The final version of the EOZ is significantly different than originally proposed. Removed from the final zoning plans were the controversial large-scale power plants.

"We agreed to take out the combustion turbines component and the bio-mass component," Struck explained.

The county's Environmental Impact Statement regarding the plan was issued on Sept. 3, 2004.

From the draft version of the EOZ ordinance, which was expected to be approved on March 15: "The Planning Commission recommended that the plan and zoning map amendments should include within the EOZ the areas identified in the preferred alternative in the EIS for wind and solar energy. Natural gas was not recommended for inclusion in the EOZ. Bio-mass was included only as identified in the limited geographic alterative for that area ... in the Bingen vicinity south of State Route 14."

About one-third of the county is included in the EOZ. It primarily includes the southern third of the county, minus the areas within the National Scenic Area, and a large part of the county from Goldendale east.

Struck noted that there is a 21-day appeal period after the zoning ordinance is adopted. However, he added that he does not anticipate appeals at this point.

"The major players who had concerns have had their concerns answered," he said.

An appeal of the Environmental Impact Statement had been filed, but the two parties worked out an agreement before the March 8 vote.

"We settled the appeal on the EIS," Struck said. "I'm real happy we were able to work out suitable settlement with the appellants. They had valid concerns, and we tried to mitigate their concerns. Everybody was reasonably happy. As long as these are sited in the proper areas, I think everybody is pleased. And we didn't have to go to court."

The appeal of the EIS was filed on Sept. 24. The appellants were Columbia Riverkeeper and Friends of the Gorge, along with three Klickitat County citizens, Jay Letto, Dawn Stover, and Daniel Lichtenwald.

Stover, who lives in the Snowden area, said she signed on to the appeal as a private citizen because she was concerned that public involvement in energy facility siting decisions would be removed under the EOZ plan.

"When they eliminated the conditional use permit for energy processes, it effectively eliminated any public hearings," Stover explained. However, the settlement agreement between the appellants and the county appeared to help smooth over that concern.

"There are some provisions for public notification and public involvement," Stover said. "We will still be carefully reviewing applications that come along for individual projects to make sure the necessary environmental reviews have been done."

According to Struck, one of the concessions agreed to call for a local citizen advisory committee as a way to open dialogue in areas energy developers are considering. The informal committees could include local neighbors, fish and wildlife experts, cattleman, agricultural interests, environmental interests -- anyone who may have a direct stake in a proposed energy facility.

However, Stover said she was disappointed that a lawsuit was needed to ensure the public would be notified of proposed energy developments.

"It's unfortunate the county was unwilling to make improvements to the proposed zoning -- including provisions for keeping the public informed -- until we filed a legal appeal," she explained. "People who live in this county should have a say in what happens here."

In another change to the EOZ as originally envisioned, the Snowden area has been allowed to opt out of the EOZ.

"Proposals for the Snowden planning district would go under the conditional use permit process," Struck said.

Stover, who also serves as a member of the Snowden Community Council, said the Snowden area was not well-suited for wind energy development.

"There is not much wind here, and forested areas are most likely to have conflicts," Stover explained. "Also, they don't like to put wind projects at higher elevations, over 2,000 feet, because of ice problems on the blades. The winds here are not strong enough to be economically feasible."

Despite the settlement agreement, those who filed the appeal of the EIS released a statement on March 15 expressing sharp reservations about the EOZ.

"This new zoning is totally unnecessary and a huge waste of taxpayer money," Stover said in a prepared statement. She pointed to the fact that the county paid about $488,000 to a variety of consultants for the Environmental Impact Statement for the new zoning, and spent an undetermined amount on attorneys working for Foster, Pepper & Shefelman, a Seattle law firm that helped develop the county's Energy Overlay Zone plan.

"That's money that should have been spent right here in our county to help struggling farmers, ranchers, and union workers. Instead our county used that money to help energy companies, which will create very few jobs in our communities," Stover said.

Struck said he believes the benefits of the EOZ could be huge.

"We've had two recent inquiries from companies waiting to see how this (EOZ) panned out," Struck explained.

Several wind power companies are planning to site wind turbines in the Bickleton area. These turbines could add nearly 700 megawatts of electrical power, and Struck pointed out that estimates are that the county's tax base gains $1 million per megawatt. With the other energy firms expressing interest, Struck said the tax benefits could jump.

"We could add $1 billion to the tax base in the county," Struck said. "Local fire districts could see huge monetary benefits. It's huge. It could really help the junior taxing districts. And the county too. The general fund and the Road Department will benefit."

According to Struck, the county's current tax base is at $1.7 billion overall.

Struck said he is pleased with the county's move to encourage wind power development.

"There is a lot of support for wind power," he noted.

Another element the commissioners agreed to called for a review of the EOZ if certain milestones are reached. The milestones included in the ordinance call for the County Commissioner to "revisit" the EOZ if 1,000 megawatts of power are in place from new developments in the county, or after seven years from the date the ordinance is adopted.

"It gives us, not necessarily a sunset, but the opportunity to step in and revisit the issues and not encourage it as we have," Struck said.

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