By JESSE BURKHARDT
Proponents and opponents of wind power development in the Underwood area had the opportunity to have their say during a recent series of public hearings.
On May 7, the Washington Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC) met for two public "scoping" hearings -- one in Stevenson at the Rock Creek Center, and one in Underwood at the Underwood Community Center.
At issue is the proposed 75-MW "Whistling Ridge Energy Project," which would be located on SDS Lumber Co./Broughton Lumber Co. property in eastern Skamania County. The windmill project, which would require about 50 wind turbines and related infrastructure, is proposed for the ridge just west of Underwood Mountain.
The hearings were geared to identify the issues the Environmental Impact Study for the project needs to address.
"It was good they held the meeting in Underwood," said SDS Lumber Co. President Jason Spadaro. "All sides have been able to put in good comments. Everybody was heard. EFSEC is experienced in hearing all these comments, and address the impacts appropriately."
The meeting at the Underwood Community Center was crowded with approximately 100 citizens eager to offer their viewpoints for and against the project.
"That hearing lasted about three hours," explained Sally Newell, chair of the Underwood Community Council. "It was back to back to back speakers. Of the people from Underwood who testified, a pretty overwhelming majority were not comfortable with the project."
Spadaro said the wind energy project is necessary for economic diversification for SDS, which has suffered though employee layoffs in recent months.
"One of my main points is how important it is for SDS Lumber Co. to diversify, so we're not so reliant on housing starts," Spadaro explained.
Spadaro added that wind power also can provide a vital boost to the nation's efforts to create innovative and non-polluting energy resources.
"It helps respond to the renewable energy needs of the nation. It's a national priority to develop clean energy," Spadaro pointed out. "Every megawatt of wind power is one less megawatt of coal that needs to be generated, which has impacts on the Scenic Area, too."
Newell said she has gone from being neutral about the project to "increasingly opposed." The bright red lights she saw on wind turbine towers near Goldendale were among the primary concerns.
"There is a red light in Hood River that kind of wrecks the night sky," Newell said. "And if there are 15 of those red lights on that ridge, I'll probably like it even less."
Newell also sees traffic congestion as a big concern. She believes the number of trucks bringing in the massive turbines and tower parts would inevitably block the narrow roads leading to the tower sites.
"There are a lot of moms taking their kids to soccer or to the doctor's office, but if these turbines come in, that's going to be out of the question for about a year because of the truck traffic coming and going," Newell said.
One of the key objections brought up by opponents of the project is the negative visual impact of the wind turbines to the National Scenic Area (NSA), and Newell said she shared that concern.
"They are placing these turbines right on the NSA boundary," Newell said. "It just doesn't seem right to allow 400-foot structures right along the edge of the Scenic Area."
Spadaro said it was unfair to use the proximity of the NSA boundaries as a way to try to halt the Whistling Ridge Energy Project.
"One of the centers of opposition to this project is the proximity of the Scenic Area, but the Scenic Act is clear: Some areas are protected and some are exempt. Outside the boundaries are exempt. There are no buffers on the boundaries," he explained.
Spadaro pointed out that within the National Scenic Area, urban areas have been created to allow for growth and development.
"Even smokestack industries; anything that is legal," Spadaro noted. "And those areas are outside the Scenic Area authority. It's the same way on boundaries. If you keep buffering, then there is no place for economic development, and the intent of Congress was to provide for economic development. This is outside the National Scenic Area, and it is our private property."
The second purpose of the May 7 hearings was to establish whether wind turbines would be consistent with Skamania County's land use ordinances. EFSEC was informed by Skamania County officials that there was no zoning inconsistency in relation to the Whistling Ridge project.
"The county's planning director certified it is consistent with current land use ordinances, and the Skamania County Commissioners have told EFSEC it is consistent," Spadaro said.
However, opponents of the wind power project -- including Friends of the Columbia Gorge and Save Our Scenic Area -- have asked to intervene in decisions on land use ordinances. The groups are expected to file legal briefs regarding land use issues in a bid to halt the project.
The May 7 activities included a visit to some of the places where wind turbines are proposed to be located.
Spadaro led an impromptu convoy to several sites.
"We piled in our cars and went up there. There were 20 or 30 cars," Newell said. "We stopped in various locations and Jason would explain about the site."
Spadaro said the process going forward is expected to be a relatively lengthy one.
"We hope to have a draft EIS completed by this fall," Spadaro said. "Then there will be an opportunity for public comment, then a final EIS, and EFSEC can add conditions. By the early part of next year, we should have an answer on permitting -- but then that could be appealed."
Newell added that SDS has proposed a second phase that would expand the wind energy project into additional land in the area.
The project should be evaluated as a whole, Newell suggested.
"Let's evaluate the whole project instead of in stages," she said. "The piecemeal approach does not serve the public interest very well."
Regardless of the views of area residents, Newell said she was pleased with the response from the community.
"What made me happy was that EFSEC came to Underwood, and Underwood turned out. I was so happy to see the level of participation," Newell said. "I don't care if they like the wind power project or hate it, I just want them to show up and tell them."
Spadaro agreed it was important for citizens to express their views and any concerns they might have.
"Everyone was able to make their comments, and we'll see where it goes from here," he said.