It was referred to as the largest turnout ever for a meeting of the Underwood Community Council. Last Thursday evening, approximately 125 people flocked to the local Community Center to hear SDS Lumber Co. President Jason Spadaro explain details and field questions about a proposed wind turbine project west of Underwood.
Spadaro opened the meeting by saying that a wind energy plan has been under consideration by SDS officials since 2002.
The site being considered for the "Saddleback Wind Project" is on land owned by SDS and Broughton Lumber Co. According to Spadaro, the wind turbines, if approved, would be installed on the west side of the Underwood River on property that has been involved in commercial forestry operations for more than 60 years.
"We have not yet submitted an application for review by Skamania County," Spadaro explained. "It's conceptual at this point, but is quickly moving to conclusion."
Spadaro said the site for the turbines had to meet several key criteria, including:
The site had to be outside of the National Scenic Area boundaries;
It had to be near BPA transmission lines;
It had to be in location that offers adequate wind resources;
It had to be compatible with existing land uses; and
It had to be in an area that avoided impacting sensitive wildlife or cultural resources.
Spadaro said there would be a maximum of 44 turbines in the development proposal.
"Our project is 50 megawatts. That is very small in terms of energy development," Spadaro said.
SDS has been negotiating with Puget Sound Energy to be a partner in the Saddleback project.
When the question and answer period began, so did some of the protests.
"If the majority of Underwood residents oppose this idea, would you abandon the project?" asked one questioner.
Spadaro said that would not play into the decision process.
"This project will be judged upon facts," Spadaro said. "We don't make decisions based on whether it's popular or unpopular. We would not base our decision on emotion."
Some contended that placing the turbines so close to the National Scenic Area was unfair and unnecessary.
"You'll come in and clear-cut the trees and put up wind generators that will be viewed from all over the place. Put them in eastern Oregon or eastern Washington, don't put them here," said Stephen Curley of Underwood.
"If we had property there we would consider it. But we are within our rights to try to permit wind energy outside the National Scenic Area," Spadaro said.
Another citizen warned that the energy project would not stop with only 44 turbines, but Spadaro countered that was not true.
"The National Scenic Area is on the south end of our land. To the west, the topography banks off. To the east, the wind resource is not there, and to the north it's not our property," Spadaro explained. "These 44 turbines are the limits to the project."
A decline in property values due to the proximity of the turbines was another concern raised by local residents.
"I've looked at studies that show that if the turbines are visible, it automatically drops property value by 20-30 percent, sometimes 40 percent," said one local landowner. "I would not have bought this property if I knew we'd be looking at 40 wind turbines."
Spadaro was also asked about plans to place other wind turbines in the area.
"We have no plans in Skamania County," he responded. "We are considering one site in Hood River County. At some point in the future we might pursue the one in Hood River County."
Another questioner wondered why the towers always had to be white, suggesting that other colors might be less visible.
Spadaro replied that studies determined that the gray or white colors tended to blend in to the skyline most effectively and be least visible.
One woman said serious health problems would result from having wind turbines sited in the area.
"The inability to get away from the noise and vibration leads to health problems, anger, and an inability to sleep," she explained.
Spadaro said that normally, having residences at least 1,000 feet away from the turbines is considered a "normal distance to mitigate impacts."
"In this case, the closest residence is 2,600 feet, which is about half a mile," Spadaro explained.
Spadaro pointed out that wind energy is a vital component of plans to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases humans release into the atmosphere.
"Climate change is happening on our planet," Spadaro said. "I'd be proud to see renewable energy projects here, because it would show we're doing something for renewable energy."
Underwood resident Hank Patton said that made sense to him.
"I've been reading about a coal plant in Utah and the severe health problems it is causing," Patton said. "I'm with Jason. A windmill looks real beautiful to me compared to that."
Spadaro took the opportunity to try to shoot down some rumors he'd heard about the project.
"That it sounds like a helicopter 24 hours a day is not true," he said.
Spadaro said there would be significant economic benefits, including $500,000 in annual tax benefits to Skamania County. He noted that some of that money would go to the White Salmon School District.
"Underwood pays into the White Salmon School District, so the White Salmon schools would be a beneficiary," Spadaro explained.
Bob Wittenberg of the Skamania Public Utility District said the PUD supported the energy project.
"We need to build more power generation capability in the Northwest," Wittenberg said. "If we don't, we are headed toward a problem. The bottom line -- we as a society need energy, and we as a region need more energy. We have a choice about where the power comes from."
A member of the Yakama Nation said he was there representing the leaders of his tribe, who could not be in attendance that evening.
"We've had the opportunity to visit this project on Saddleback, and from the chiefs' perspective, from a cultural and environmental viewpoint and for generating power, it's better than hydro power because that kills all our salmon,' the tribal member said. "Our chiefs said they will support wind energy. What better way to generate power?"
The Yakama speaker put the decision facing Underwood area residents in a historical perspective.
"If we'd had the same opportunity you guys have here when they were talking about building the dams on the Columbia River, what do you think we would have done?" he said. "That's the big picture for all of us."
Spadaro called on residents to consider the benefits of wind energy.
"Why not embrace wind power? Why not tell our kids and grandkids that Skamania County is doing something about supporting renewable energy?" he said.
Underwood resident Don Morby questioned why every proposal had to be met with resistance.
"Why do people have to object to everything we're trying to do here? There's got to be a way to do this without fighting," Morby said.
Skamania County Commissioner Jamie Tolfree also attended the meeting, and was asked if the county would allow the wind energy site to be built.
"If the community opposed this, we would look at your concerns," Tolfree responded. "But there is a whole big picture out there, and we are very favorable to renewable energy. There has been a huge change in our economic situation, and we need to be reaching out so we can survive."
Before proceeding, the project would need to be granted a conditional use permit, building permits, and a road use agreement by Skamania County officials, and Tolfree noted that there will be public comment periods throughout the permitting process.
Opponents of the Saddleback wind power project said they would hold their own meeting soon, although no date or location had been announced as of press time Tuesday.
Toward the end of the meeting, one man said he feared the voice of the people who oppose the project would be overcome by the corporate interests supporting it.
"When power comes in, communities always lose. It's going to impact the mountain," he said.
The meeting lasted about two and a half hours.