By SVERRE BAKKE
The state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council last Thursday recommended approval of the proposed 75-megawatt Whistling Ridge Energy Project in southeastern Skamania County -- with a 30 percent reduction in the number of wind turbines because of scenic impacts.
The seven-member council voted 6-0 (one member was absent) to recommend approval of a Site Certification Agreement for the project -- the first wind-power facility ever reviewed by the Site Evaluation Council -- minus 15 of the 50 proposed 426-foot-tall turbines for which "no mitigation is possible," said council chairman Jim Luce.
In the decision read by Luce last Thursday evening at Stevenson's Rock Creek Center, the council eliminated what would be the three most-visible tower strings -- as seen from key Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area viewpoints -- from Whistling Ridge Energy's $150 million project, which lies entirely outside scenic area boundaries.
Whistling Ridge Energy, LLC is a partnership of Broughton Lumber Co. and SDS Lumber Co. that wants to construct a wind farm along the ridgelines of 1,152 acres of mostly private commercial forest land west and northwest of Underwood.
The recommendation that eventually will go to Gov. Christine Gregoire is for approval of the wind farm with a maximum of 35 turbines and a maximum generating capacity of 75 megawatts.
Jason Spadaro, president of Whistling Ridge Energy, declined to comment on the council's ruling because he had not yet seen it in writing.
Luce announced at the conclusion of last Thursday's meeting that a 20-day period to request reconsideration of the council's recommendation will commence once the final order is published. Gregoire, upon receipt of the recommendation, will have 60 days to act.
According to Luce -- who summarized the council's proceedings which began on March 10, 2009, with the filing of Whistling Ridge's application -- impacts on scenic resources "was a major bone of contention" throughout the more-than 2.5-year-long site evaluation process.
In reaching a decision, Luce said the council balanced the public's interest in protecting the Gorge "viewscape" against its interest in allowing for construction of new energy facilities.
Former state Public Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland, who represented Skamania County on the council for this project, said in his only public comments on the decision that, through the give-and-take of the deliberative process, council members "came to a place where the decision was reasonable, well thought and, most important, defensible."
He added, "My greatest fear is that, after tonight, someone is going to challenge the decision." In his view, "Once people are asked to make the decision, and they make it, I think that should be it."
Council member Andrew Hayes of the state Dept. of Natural Resources remarked, "Given that this is the first wind-power project considered by the council, it was important for us to mitigate and minimize as many of the impacts as possible."
The turbines strings removed by the council because of their visual impacts are string A1-A7 and strings C1-C4 and C5-C8, as shown at left in an edited aerial view of the project site.