The Albany County Planning and Zoning Commission will not recommend sweeping changes to wind energy regulations in the near-term, voting instead last week to support minimal amendments proposed by the county’s planning department.
On Wednesday morning, the commission held a special session to consider existing wind energy development guidelines. The meeting came in response to some landowners’ opposition to a potential wind energy project proposed for the southeast part of the county. During its June 10 planning and zoning meeting, the board expressed interest in hearing from more parties affected by any potential wind regulation changes.
But the commission ultimately decided not to adopt the sweeping wind regulatory changes, for now. The proposed regulatory overhaul would have effectively blocked all future wind development in the county by substantially increasing setback requirements. But the board did vote 4-1 to allow the county’s planning department to draft minor revisions to align the county’s regulations with the state’s.
The county’s controversy over wind regulations stretches back several months.
Last year, Houston-based renewable energy company ConnectGen announced it planned to construct an ambitious wind farm in southeast Albany County. The proposed 504-megawatt wind farm would stretch across 26,000 acres of private and state land. The Rail Tie Wind Project would also build upwards of 151 wind turbines on both sides of Highway 287 just outside Tie Siding and generate enough energy to power over 180,000 homes.
But some landowners and county residents have come out in opposition to the project, citing the project’s disruptions to scenic views, property values and public safety, among other concerns.
“What we have got to do is look at these effects that these (wind) sites have on our citizens and on our community, and to have the information to make an informed decision,” said Mitchell Edwards, an attorney representing the group of landowners against the wind energy project. He submitted a proposal to overhaul existing county wind regulations.
Public comment offered to commissioners later in the afternoon also echoed many of the concerns outlined by Edwards. Albany County resident Sue Dow expressed alarm over the proposed wind farm project before the commission Wednesday.
“I implore you, please review Mr. Edwards’ suggestions and at a minimum incorporate some of the setback and changes and regulations to lessen impact on residents and visitors and grandchildren,” she said. “This is very important. This is a beautiful valley and I would hate to see us sell out our wonderful vistas and our reputation for Wyoming as a gateway to beautiful Wyoming with a wind farm.”
But multiple county officials also urged caution before advancing Edwards’ proposal, stating it would shut down all forthcoming wind development in Albany County.
Representatives for ConnectGen, the company behind the proposed Rail Tie Wind Project, defended its proposed wind farm. It walked commissioners through the myriad economic benefits it could bring the county.
Amanda MacDonald, Rail Tie’s project manager, called Edwards’ proposal to make the county’s wind regulations more stringent “arbitrary and extreme.” They would “effectively block any future wind development in Albany County,” she remarked.
ConnectGen has yet to apply for a permit with the county board, but plans to do so early next year. However, the county’s current regulations play a significant role in the company’s wind development plans from the very beginning.
MacDonald, with ConnectGen, emphasized the need for businesses to have a stable and predictable environment to work in.
“If the country regulations were to change at this point, we would have to redo our siting corridors, and basically redo the work we have done the past year and a half,” MacDonald said.
Commissioners voted in favor of minor changes proposed by the county planning department to bring the rules into alignment with state wind regulations.
However, Edwards’ big proposal isn’t dead.
The commission said they plan to return to Edwards’ proposed regulatory changes for consideration during the upcoming 4 p.m. Aug. 12 planning and zoning meeting.
Next steps for wind farm
ConnectGen’s wind proposal comes at a time when market demand for renewable energy across the Western grid continues to expand.
Construction and operation of the state’s newest proposed renewable energy farm could create 136 direct jobs during its 35-year lifespan, ConnectGen estimates. In addition, ConnectGen anticipates the Rail Tie will generate $133.5 million in taxes for the county and $45 million for the state over its lifetime.
The company hopes to connect to the Ault-Craig 345-kilovolt transmission line already in operation in Albany County.
The federal government is also in the beginning stages of investigating the potential impacts of the entire project, as required under the National Environmental Policy Act. MacDonald anticipates a draft environmental impact statement coming out around early 2021.
If federal regulators approve the wind farm, the project will still have a long road ahead. It still needs to obtain permits from both the Wyoming Industrial Siting Council and Albany County. Once the draft environmental impact statement is released, ConnectGen will start applying for state and local approval, MacDonald told the Star-Tribune.
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