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Big crowd shows up for solar farm hearing

October 22, 2016 GMT

Kittitas County Hearing Examiner Andrew Kottkamp will continue to review a proposed solar development near Kittitas after listening to almost four hours of public testimony Thursday about the project.

About 70 people attended two public hearings at the Kittitas County courthouse. Kottkamp did not issue a ruling on an environmental appeal or a conditional use permit Thursday night and will take 15 days to study the testimony presented. More than a thousand pages of material was submitted.

As hearing examiner, Kottkamp will make a decision on whether more county environmental review is needed, and forward a recommendation to Kittitas County commissioners on the conditional use permit. Kottkamp said the decision before him was not one he took lightly and he would consider it in great detail.

“I may not have a dog in this fight, but I will be very careful in this decision,” he said. “I’m humbled by the task at hand.”

OneEnergy Renewables, a renewable energy developer with offices in Seattle and Portland, has leased land near Caribou and Clerf roads for the Iron Horse Solar Farm. The proposed solar farm would be 48 acres with 18,500 solar panels, each up to 8 feet high. The property is zoned for agricultural use.

Neighbors have objected to the conditional use permit, and filed an appeal of county government determination the project wouldn’t have a significant environmental impact.

Objections

Attorney James Carmody, who represented neighbors Patty and Craig Clerf and the Say No to Iron Horse group at the hearing, said the county failed to inform citizens when OneEnergy updated its environmental checklist, as well as provide a sufficient time for the public to comment on the new information. Carmody said county ordinances require a 14-day comment period for the environmental checklist.

OneEnergy Renewables received additional environmental requirements from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife after the comment period had closed, he said. OneEnergy in turn updated its environmental checklist to address those concerns.

The county should have withdrawn the designation of non-significance and redone the study while updating the public about those changes, he said.

Carmody said the project should be halted because it would affect farmland and the neighboring properties through the intrusion of noxious weeds, the damage to rural character, the loss of jobs and revenue and the loss of valuable agricultural land.

The Osprey solar farm in Kittitas County is being used as precedent to justify the Iron Horse solar farm on farmland, he said. But the Osprey solar farm was built on substandard farm soil that was not irrigated. OneEnergy also is involved with the Osprey project, which is planned on a 112-acre parcel near the intersection of state Route 10 and Highway 97. It was approved by the county last year.

The Iron Horse project would be better off in other areas in the county like the red zone, where agricultural and residential developments are limited, Carmody said.

Iron Horse is proposed in an Agriculture 20 zone, which is meant to protect farmland and rural character. A solar farm does not have rural character, he said.

OneEnergy

Timothy McMahan, who represented OneEnergy Renewables at the hearing, agreed that the solar facility will change the character of the landscape. He also could see that the project was heavily opposed in the community, but said that shouldn’t be a factor in an environmental review.

Carmody’s argument, McMahan said, was also not an accurate interpretation of the law. The environmental review does not require an additional comment period and an applicant can submit new information at any time.

“It is a creative argument, but that is not the law,” he said.

McMahan said if a project needed to be reviewed again every time an environmental review was changed it would put a gag order on the county from talking to any state agencies.

McMahan also agreed that weed control in an agriculture community is important, but Iron Horse has a sufficient plan for combatting that problem.

OneEnergy is limited in where it can place solar farms, he said. The group needs a flat, sunny area with close access to a transmitter.

“At the end of the day a local landowner is evoking his right to use his land, fully realizing all the impacts,” McMahan said.

Against Iron Horse

About a dozen residents spoke out for and against the project. Stan Blazynski, an Ellensburg resident, said the county was wasting prime farmland for energy that was going to be so expensive it would be inefficient.

“This project does not make sense,” he said.

Andrea Eklund, a resident next to the project site, said she doesn’t believe the company’s claims that the solar farm will not affect her property value and thinks it will become an eyesore in the community.

Sherre Clerf said she could not believe that the site was even being considered. The county has plenty of land especially in the shrub brush that would be better for developers.

“The idea that this is already disturbed land is insulting to farmers,” she said. “We are losing farmland at an alarming rate.”

Paul Boguslawski, a city of Kittitas resident, said properly irrigated top soil in the county is a precious resource and would be affected by the implementation of a solar farm.

“There has been no mitigation offered to us or the other families,” Patty Clerf said. “We have been called insignificant.”

Additional comments

Washington State Fish and Wildlife biologist Scott Downes said the department does not agree that the project can be moved to the shrub steppe. The shrub steppe is a protected area that is controlled for sensitive species, he said.

Fish and Wildlife does not have an opinion about whether the project should go forward, he said. It just wants to be clear that it cannot be moved to the shrub steppe.

Jake Steign, a Roslyn resident, said the county needs to not only look at the short term, but the long term needs of its citizens.

As global climate change continues the county will suffer from water shortages, which will affect the power supply at Bonneville dam. The county must find other sources of energy than hydroelectric.

Thomas Houghton, Iron Horse Solar Farm owner and operator and a partner with OneEnergy, said the company plans to put in short-growing grasses that can be easily mowed to address concerns about weeds. The plants will also help prevent against the danger from fires in the summer, an issue in which the company and the residents have a common interest.

Jeff Greear, an Ellensburg resident, said the energy produced would be sold to Puget Sound Energy and would offset the utility’s carbon productions, which make up 30 percent of its operations.