Visual Effects of Proposed Central Washington
It's in The Eyes
A proposed central Washington wind farm, as with a potential neighboring wind energy facility, would substantially change local views.
However, according to a draft environmental impact statement on the proposed 180-megawatt-capacity Desert Claim Wind Power Project north of Ellensburg, the effects on the eyes could be lessened.
"With considerable efforts to mitigate the project through visual integration, ecological restoration, sound maintenance, and community outreach from siting through operation, the visual impact could be dramatically reduced," states the recently issued draft EIS from Kittitas County. But, it adds, "This mitigation process would not, however, lead to a project that would be invisible. On the contrary, it would yield a project that would be quite noticeable but that fit better with the landscape of the Kittitas Basin and the aesthetic values of the people who live there."
The draft EIS lists several options for moderating visual impacts, including clustering small groups of turbines, placing turbines to fit in with the topography and creating uniform arrangements of turbines. Underground electrical lines and unobtrusive finishes on equipment also would help.
Many other potential effects from the proposed wind farm are outlined in the draft EIS, but most are considered minor and resolvable.
Nonetheless, Desert Claim has generated some local opposition, as has the proposed 181.5-MW-capacity Kittitas Valley Wind Power Project a short distance away (see Con.WEB, Jan. 30, 2004).
"It really does come down to visuals and property values, and everything else ties into it," said Kittitas County planner Clay White.
Desert Claim is proposed by a subsidiary of California-based enXco.
EnXco applied to Kittitas County for approval of Desert Claim in January 2003 (see Con.WEB, Jan. 30, 2003). The company touted the proposed site's wind resource, transmission and power market access, and lack of "apparent environmental constraints."
Desert Claim would lie within 5,237 privately owned acres roughly 8 miles north of the county seat, Ellensburg. It would consist of up to 120 1.5-MW-capacity turbines, along with 7.4 miles of 34.5-kilovolt overhead lines sending power to a substation (or possibly two), and possibly several miles of 115-KV or 230-KV transmission lines for grid interconnection. Other infrastructure would include gravel access roads, about four meteorological towers and an operations/storage/repair facility in or near Ellensburg.
The draft EIS covers a broad array of topics, and most of the prospective impacts from Desert Claim are deemed minimal and redeemable.
But not views. The project would cause "significant unavoidable adverse impacts to the visual environment," especially for nearby residents, the draft EIS said. In addition to potential turbine configuration changes to mitigate these effects, the document suggests such options as low-reflectivity and neutral-color finishes for turbines and other equipment, underground electrical systems and minimum required lighting.
Still, acknowledged White, "They're big towers." Nearly 400 feet high from ground to blade tip, these turbines would be among the tallest structures in Eastern Washington, he noted. The Kittitas County Board of Commissioners will ultimately have to decide the magnitude of the impacts, and any potential mitigation, he said.
Visual effects are always scrutinized for wind projects, said David Steeb, a Desert Claim project director. "I would agree that that has been, from day one, one of the key considerations of building a wind farm everywhere, especially in the Kittitas Valley. Their impacts on the view are just part of doing a wind project."
The environmental review process is ongoing, said Steeb, and he declined comment on prospective mitigation measures. "We want to look at the whole EIS mitigation package and we want to look at all the comments, and how it all comes out in the final EIS put together by the county. The key there is this project doesn't just hinge on one issue."
Desert Claim officials are thinking about ways to ease impacts, but, "We can't make those [mitigation] decisions ... until we see what the total picture is," said Steeb.
Another major issue, although not environmental in nature, is the potential effect of Desert Claim on property values.
The draft EIS estimates the project's initial assessed valuation at $92 million, 3.6 percent of the county's total valuation. First-year property tax revenues are projected at almost $1.1 million.
A literature review conducted for the county--separate from the draft EIS--cited two studies on the effects of wind farms on local property values. In one, assessors in 13 counties nationwide with wind projects "reported--primarily through anecdotes or impressions--that wind power facilities had not led to declines in the assessed values of nearby residential properties," said the review by Huckell/Weinman Associates. A 2003 study by Renewable Energy Policy Project looked at property sales data in 10 counties inside wind farm view areas and "did not find evidence that wind power facilities diminished property values."
Some county residents, however, believe Desert Claim would drive down property values. Any claim otherwise is "not true in any sense of the imagination," said Roger Weaver, a local real estate professional.
He said the county's information examined lower-valued properties, not higher-valued recreational/view properties found in Kittitas County, according to a Daily Record newspaper article. He suggested a more comparable study.
However, the newspaper also reported another citizen's remark that properties near proposed Kittitas County wind farms had recently sold for prices higher than purchased amounts.
On another notable wind energy concern, some birds would undoubtedly be killed by Desert Claim, the draft EIS said. It projects 1.2 to 1.8 bird deaths annually per turbine (140 to 220 altogether), mostly passerines. This falls within the range of other Northwest wind facilities, and consequently, "impacts to birds would not be considered significant."
Another aerial issue for Desert Claim involves airplanes; 27 planned turbines would infringe upon protected airspace for planes following visual flight rules for nearby Bowers Field. This could be resolved by removing, moving or lowering the height of turbines, the draft EIS said, or by shifting flight patterns away from Desert Claim.
Cumulative Wind Project Impacts
The Desert Claim draft EIS also examines cumulative impacts from this and the Kittitas Valley and Wild Horse wind ventures proposed by Zilkha Renewable Energy. (See Con.WEB, July 2003, for more on Wild Horse.)
Views, again, would be significantly affected. "Proposed wind turbines (approximately 360 cumulatively) would be significantly larger in scale than nearby rural and agricultural uses and structures, would be dispersed over a large area, and would result in some degree of visual discord or intrusion with existing uses," the draft EIS said. Desert Claim and Kittitas Valley "could cumulatively discourage residential uses" in their vicinity, the document said, but this could also help preserve agricultural lands.
"Some nearby residential users might seek to relocate if they felt that wind facilities, individually or collectively, conflicted with elements of their lifestyles," the draft EIS said.
That statement drew a sharp retort from local resident Dwight Bates, quoted in the Daily Record. "This made me and other residents very mad," he said. "We were here first. How can you invade our beautiful valley and tell us to move? Who would want to live next door to these monstrosity turbines?"
Views of Kittitas Valley and Desert Claim together "might be greater than the sum of their individual impacts," the draft EIS said. It also stated that Interstate 90 drivers would likely notice "extensive wind energy development in the Kittitas Valley area."
Substantial local economic benefits would accrue from these three wind projects of about 540 MW total capacity, the draft EIS found. It estimated nearly $16 million in additional income during construction, and about $5.3 million a year during operations. The county's total assessed value would increase by more than $270 million, a jump of more than 10 percent above the county's current total valuation of $2.5 billion for real and personal property.
"On balance, the actual effect of the projects on property taxes would likely be some combination of increased revenues and decreased levy rates," the draft EIS said. Added tax revenues would far exceed additional costs of public services for these wind facilities.
With the draft EIS completed and the public comment period ended Jan. 30, Kittitas County will assess comments and determine what needs to be done for a final EIS, White said. Once the final environmental document is completed--the schedule is uncertain--the county commissioners will make decisions on the specific county approvals needed for Desert Claim: a development permit, a development agreement with the county, a comprehensive plan amendment and a rezoning of the project area.
Kittitas County's permitting process is one of two current priorities for Desert Claim, Steeb said. The other is selling the wind-generated power. With a number of Pacific Northwest utilities soliciting wind energy, Steeb is optimistic about market prospects for the project. His company also is exploring "other things not as public at this stage."
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