LARAMIE — After five hours of sometimes heated testimony regarding the proposed Rail Tie Wind Project, the Albany County Board of Commissioners closed the public hearing Tuesday night without making a decision.
The commission now has 45 days to approve or deny ConnectGen’s application for a county permit to build a 500-megawatt wind project on 26,000 acres of public and private land near Tie Siding.
Meeting in the courtroom, which was at full capacity, dozens of county residents of all ages spoke for and against the project both in person and online. Chairman Pete Gosar urged the audience to refrain from displays of emotion, though opponents of the project broke out in regular applause and occasional jeers.
There were tearful pleas, a few raised voices and a hasty recess following a heated confrontation between Carson “Ace” Aanenson and Commissioner Heber Richardson.
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Richardson later apologized for his outburst, adding that he takes conflicts of interest very seriously. Richardson owns Honeywagon Sanitation Pumping and said he has no financial stake in the project.
“Whether you like my decision or not, please don’t doubt my integrity,” he said.
ConnectGen is in the midst of securing county, state and federal permission for the project, which calls for 120 turbines, each about 600 feet tall. Construction would start early next year. The project would connect to a federal transmission line that runs through the southern portion of the project area.
Opponents of the Rail Tie project, mostly nearby residents, argued that it would be dangerous and invasive, permanently altering the character of the area. They cited fire concerns, traffic safety, potential road damage, concerns about disruptive light and sound, potential damage to the aquifer and threats to birds, bats and big game.
Annalee Ames Frohlich said the 65-foot-tall Ames Monument, recognized as a national historic landmark, would be dwarfed by turbines in the distance.
“The monument should not have to compete with the windmills,” she said.
William Dorsey said blasting during construction could damage underground water resources and crack home foundations.
“We citizens should not be considered collateral damage,” he said.
Susan McGuire argued that a decline in bird abundance could have wide-ranging consequences.
“Wind turbine bird kill has set us up for a monstrous rodent plague,” she said.
Lynn Montoya said her bed-and-breakfast at the edge of the project area near Interstate 80 would be ruined by turbines in the view shed.
“I believe this project will kill my business, and I will be left with a valueless property and nothing to leave to my family and my children,” she said.
Adam Nash, who described himself as a California transplant and remote worker, said he chose to live in Albany County because of the wildlife and natural beauty.
“If this goes up, there’s no reason for me to stay here,” he said of the project.
Missy Kramschuster said a turbine would tower over a family graveyard at the edge of her property. She worried that her property would only decline in value because of the project, which would also intrude on daily life.
“I will no longer be able to sleep peacefully and no longer be able to have my windows open,” she said.
Emma Clute said the project might look good on paper but would turn out to be a bad decision for the county.
“This is one of the most beautiful places in the world,” she said. “I hope I would put that before whatever money is being offered to me, even if I had to make sacrifices and suffer for it.”
Barb Smith, who lives near the Ames Monument, said her subdivision has strict lighting and construction rules intended to protect the views in the area. Such rules would be rendered laughable in the face of the nearby project.
“A giant industrial complex covering both the ground and the sky is not appropriate in the area of the Ames Monument,” she said.
Mitch Edwards, an attorney representing 60 landowners, argued that the right to install wind turbines on one’s property is conditional, not inherent. However, the county is required to protect public health and safety.
“This project is surrounded on all sides by property that this commission and this county has zoned, and permitted and allowed to be developed as rural residential. You cannot make the findings that you are required to make for the ConnectGen permit in this location,” he said.
Supporters of the project argued that the benefits it would bring to the county would outweigh any potential downsides. They said the county needs the tax revenue, which would benefit schools especially. Many said they were excited to participate in an effort to diversify the economy, develop renewable energy and mitigate climate change.
Rancher Nancy Bath argued that Edwards’ interpretation of the law would in fact violate private property rights.
“The real issue began when all the subdivisions sprang up around the county. That’s contributed a lot to the problem,” she said. “You’re welcome for the view that we have provided for all of these years. I hope that you enjoyed it. You assumed that you owned it, but that’s not the case.”
Landowner Terry Cammon said he and his family deliberated for more than a year before deciding to lease their property to ConnectGen.
“Producing and making available clean, affordable, secure energy for the United States is a huge issue, and wind has to be a part of it,” he said.
Art Sigel urged the commission to approve the project and let it get underway.
“I would say that Rail Tie is the sort of opportunity that comes along once in a generation,” he said.
Taylor Norton said Albany County ought to take advantage of its wind resources and be part of the future of energy development.
“It has been one of my profound frustrations that there aren’t any wind farms in the immediate vicinity, because it’s such a no-brainer,” he said.
Nate Martin said the county budget needs the tax revenue such a project would bring in, and there aren’t other ways to generate that money.
“I think it’s a pretty good plan, and I think most of the people in Albany County agree with me,” he said.
Laramie High School freshman Addison Forry said she felt compelled to speak out after listening to several meetings.
“I’m proud we’re doing something as a community to solve energy problems,” she said. “We have the resources to create energy, and the county commission should support this application and all the benefits that it brings to our community.”
Kelly Schroder said the project area has already seen significant development, which makes it a good spot for wind energy.
“I’m excited about this project,” she said. “I feel like it’s a step in the right direction for our community.”
Rancher Mark Eisele said wind development has been very positive for his family, his livestock and local big game.
“We have more elk, deer and antelope than we’ve ever had before,” he said. “I think the residential areas and subdivisions are pushing them down to us.”
Patrick O’Toole said opponents of the project are exaggerating potential dangers, and the county doesn’t have the luxury of considering aesthetics.
“If we want Albany County to remain the poorest county in the state, I say that we should reject this project,” he said.
According to Wyoming Statute, the Board of Commissioners has 45 days to make a decision for or against ConnectGen’s application once the public hearing has taken place. Gosar said the final decision would likely be made during one of the commission’s upcoming regular meetings.
Ibarra said she personally wasn’t ready to make a decision at 11 p.m. Tuesday and requested time to look over her notes and ask more questions.
Gosar urged audience members and listeners to be gracious and compassionate to each other as fellow citizens, remembering that the outcome would be a win for some and a loss for others.
“I want to thank you for proving that we can have passionate discussions but still maintain our dignity and respect for one another,” he said. “However this decision goes, we’ll all have to live next to each other for the foreseeable future.”