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Whistling Ridge Foes File New Objection

With energy council

Two groups opposed to the state's first wind power project on commercial timberland, the Whistling Ridge Energy Project in southeastern Skamania County, want the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council to void the results of its Oct. 6 site approval and conduct a new vote.

The groups, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, Inc., and Save Our Scenic Area (SOSA), allege in an objection filed with the council last week that the council and Skamania County's representative violated the state law that prescribes the extent of a county representative's participation in final council discussions, deliberations and voting.

During the Oct. 6 special meeting in Stevenson, the council voted unanimously, 6-0, to recommend approval of the Whistling Ridge Energy Project to Gov. Christine Gregoire, with a maximum capacity of 75 megawatts and no more than 35 wind turbines. Gregoire has 60 days to act once she receives the recommendation package. Gregoire can approve the application and execute the site agreement, reject the application or remand the matter to the council for reconsideration. The project, estimated at $150 million, would be located on 1,152 acres of private commercial timberland to the west and northwest of Underwood.

Skamania County Commissioners, pursuant to state law, appointed Doug Sutherland, a former Pierce County executive and state Public Lands Commissioner, to represent the county's interests in the Whistling Ridge site certification proceedings.

Comissioner Paul Pearce, chairman of the Skamania County Board of Commissioners, said Monday that County Prosecuting Attorney Adam Kick would be filing a response with the council. Pearce added, "The same objection was made when we appointed Doug."

In November 2010, Save Our Scenic Area, joined by Friends of the Columbia Gorge and the Seattle Audubon Society, asked Sutherland "to recuse himself under the appearance of fairness requirements," Nathan Baker, staff attorney for the Friends, said Monday.

That earlier request, Baker noted, "involved Mr. Sutherland's prior involvement in wind projects, including `phase two' of the Whistling Ridge project, originally proposed on state DNR land. Mr. Sutherland declined to recuse himself."

The objection Friends and SOSA filed last week, Baker continued, "involves the council's apparent failure to separate and vote on the issues of compliance with the Council rule, which requires the council to separate issues affecting Skamania County from issues not affecting the county, and allows Mr. Sutherland to vote only on issues affecting Skamania County. This is different from the issues raised in the prior request for recusal."

During the Oct. 6 decision meeting in Stevenson, Sutherland talked about his family's and his personal connection to Skamania County in public comments before the final votes, then voted with the other five council members present. (One member was absent but provided a written statement for the record.)

Friends of the Columbia Gorge and Save Our Scenic Area, which have opposed the project since its inception in 2009, allege the council permitted Sutherland to participate fully in council discussions, deliberations and voting on the Whistling Ridge application in violation of a Washington Administrative Code regulation, WAC 463-30-093, that governs how involved Sutherland, in his limited role as county representative, could get in details unrelated to county interests in the project. The groups, or intervenors, co-represented by Reeves, Kahn, Hennessy & Elkin of Portland, Ore., filed their objection dated Oct. 27 with the Olympia-based council last Friday.

Stephen Posner, the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council's compliance director, said Monday that council "regulations do not specify a timeframe for EFSEC to respond" to such objections.

The objection alleges that, because the council and Sutherland both failed to comply with the WAC requirements, the results of the council's votes on the Whistling Ridge application should be void. Moreover, the groups argue that the council "should reinitiate deliberations and conduct voting consistent with the applicable laws."

The cited WAC, "Participation by county, city and port district representatives," reads, "In any adjudicative site certification proceeding, designated council members representing local jurisdictions may discuss and, if authorized, vote only on issues affecting their jurisdictions. Issues shall be separated for the purposes of discussion and voting."

The Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council falls under the state Utilities and Transporation Commission, and provides a one-stop process for siting major energy facilities in Washington. The council coordinates all evaluation and licensing steps for wind, solar, geothermal, landfill gas, biomass and tidal or wave action projects.

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