Whistling ridge wind farm gets Gregoire's go ahead

March 7, 2012

Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire announced her approval Monday of the proposed Whistling Ridge wind power project to be sited near White Salmon on land owned by SDS Lumber and Broughton Lumber.

If constructed, the facility would be sited about 7 miles west of White Salmon with turbines in view of Hood River, on privately held lands currently in commercial timber production.

Gregoire has signed off on the Washington State Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council final order which reaffirmed its initial ruling and paved the way for 35 turbines - 15 fewer than originally proposed by the developer.

With the turbine reduction confirmed, SDS President Jason Spadaro of Whistling Ridge, LLC told Ted Sickinger of The Oregonian that the project was not currently financially viable. He also said it is unlikely Whistling Ridge will pursue an expensive legal fight to challenge the ruling.

The newly issued site certificate will remain valid for ten years. With potential changes in the future economy, financial viability may return for the project, even if Whistling Ridge forgoes development today.

Meanwhile, foes of the project vow to continue their fight against location of any turbines in the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area.

"Friends of the Columbia Gorge supports responsible development of renewable energy sources, but the Whistling Ridge proposal is not responsible," said Kevin Gorman, executive director for Friends of the Columbia Gorge.

"This project, even scaled back to 35 turbines, is not worth sacrificing the unique scenic beauty and wildlife of the Columbia River Gorge," said Gorman.

The approved EFSEC ruling reduced turbine numbers primarily to mitigate visual impacts in sensitive scenic areas within the Gorge. Those 15 were described as "prominently visible" and "intrusive."

Both proponents and opponents now have 30 days to challenge the governor's decision in Superior Court.

According to Nathan Baker, staff attorney for Friends of the Gorge, "Local residents and conservationists, who have opposed the poorly planned project since it was first publicly announced in 2007, are vowing to press on."

Other opponents who submitted petitions for reconsideration during the project review included Save our Scenic Area and the Seattle Audubon Society.

All three groups sited multiple objections beyond the visual intrusiveness of the project, including effects on endangered species and wildlife, obtrusive noise and intrusions on Native American heritage sites.

Petitions in support of the full 50-turbine project had been submitted by Whistling Ridge Energy LLC and the Skamania and Klickitat County Public Economic Development Authorities. Proponents focused primarily on economic development and viability.

In its previously submitted petition, Whistling Ridge, LLC had stated that elimination of the 15 denied turbines "kills the project."

If the project should continue, the remaining proposed 426-foot towers slated to be sited atop several ridgelines would still be visible throughout the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Act territory, a significant point of controversy for the proposed facility.

In a study submitted with the Whistling Ridge application, turbine visibility was noted from White Salmon, Viento State Park, the Historic Columbia River Highway, I-84 in both directions and Hood River.

"Icons of the Northwest, like the Columbia River Gorge, Mount Rainier and the Olympic Mountains, should be off-limits to large-scale energy development," said Gorman. "We can combat global warming without having to sacrifice our most special places and our core values."

According to Baker, in 2009 Skamania County abandoned efforts to rezone the project site for wind energy development.

"Because Skamania County never finished its rezoning for this project, the project is prohibited under the county's rules," said Baker. "The EFSEC failed to acknowledge these violations, thus making the governor's decision vulnerable to legal challenge."

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