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Albany County Commissioners Approve 26,000-Acre Wind Farm, Citing Need For Action On Climate Change

Two wind turbines are set in shadow as a sun sets in the background.

A recently approved wind farm could bring significant tax dollars to Albany County and the state, while helping humanity reduce carbon emissions.

ConnectGen cleared a major hurdle Tuesday night, winning approval from the Albany County Commissioners for the planned Rail Tie Wind Project.

But the approval came with some stipulations. Those stipulations represent something of a compromise with the vocal and well-organized movement that fought the wind farm for more than a year.

The courtroom where the commissioners met was packed with both opponents and supporters of the project.

The wind farm could have as many as 120 turbines and will cover some 26,000 acres of private and state land. The permitting process has taken more than a year, as ConnectGen made its case and developed a proposal that complies with existing regulations.

County Planner David Gertsch summarized the various economic and ecological impacts the Rail Tie Project would have for Albany County. Among those impacts, a huge amount of tax revenue.

"The project is projected to provide $176 million in tax revenue to the state and county," Gertsch said. "The applicant addressed the common concern of decreasing property values for those around these projects. They cited a number of studies that concluded that if there were a decrease in nearby property values, they were negligible."

Despite the windfall of cash Albany County would receive, the project's approval came with some stipulations seeking to protect landowners in the area from the negative consequences of living next to a massive wind farm.

Commissioner Sue Ibarra made ConnectGen agree to those stipulations ahead of the vote.

"I will vote to approve this permit tonight, but with some conditions - conditions that are reasonable for this wind project," she said. "All of them center around health and safety of residents, and speak to ConnectGen's commitment to the safety and welfare of the residents, while demonstrating that it is not just another business guided by the almighty dollar."

Ibarra's conditions included one-mile setbacks between turbines and properties bordering the project's land. Ibarra also requested the installation of fire suppression systems in the turbines themselves, and for the company to limit blasting to daylight hours.

Commission Chair Pete Gosar added a few conditions of his own, including generous buffer zones between the turbines and county roads.

Gosar also asked company representatives to work with landowners on the issue of shadow flicker, and to cancel plans for certain turbines if they are not approved for aircraft detection lighting by the Federal Aviation Administration. Neither of these conditions can be enforced by the commission, but Gosar asked ConnectGen to agree to them nevertheless, neighbor to neighbor.

"Being a good neighbor is important and if it takes a few less windmills to make that happen, well, it's alright," he said. "We all could do with a few less bucks and a few better relationships."

Gosar also requested that both his and Ibarra's conditions be passed on, should ConnectGen ever sell the wind farm to another company.

"I worry about that because I'm the son of an oilfield worker in western Wyoming and I have seen businesses run over local populations," Gosar said. "It's my job, as I see it, as a commissioner, to represent those local populations and to do the very best I can to make the very best deal for the people I serve."

ConnectGen accepted and agreed to these last-minute additions. The Rail Tie Project will still need a permit from Wyoming's Industrial Siting Council, and NEPA approval from the federal government, before it can start construction.

But project coordinator Amanda MacDonald said winning approval from the Albany County Commissioners was significant.

"We'll have to work hard to meet some of the conditions, but I appreciate that the commissioners put a lot of thought into these conditions and tried to find a compromise that worked best for everyone," MacDonald said. "So, overall, [I'm] very happy with the result tonight."

Not everyone was so happy.

"We pay taxes for rural-residential here in Albany County and it's the commissioners' job to protect us," said Susan Davis, who lives near the project's planned location. "I feel that they have failed in that tonight with this decision."

Davis and other local homeowners see the project not only as a threat to their viewsheds and property values, but also a threat to local wildlife, water and cultural resources.

When the Rail Tie began its permitting process more than a year ago, many of those homeowners formed an opposition group. The group took out billboards, sent mailers, hired a lawyer and made their voices heard at every public meeting where wind regulations or the Rail Tie Project were discussed.

But supporters of the project also mobilized, stressing that the wind farm would bring in $131 million in tax revenue over the life of the project for one of Wyoming's poorest counties.

Commissioner Ibarra said that money is important, but it's not everything.

"It's a difficult decision we make here tonight," Ibarra said. "That being said, I must emphasize that my decision is not based solely on economic concerns for Albany County."

Ibarra said, for her, the decision came down to climate change. The Rail Tie Project would produce 500 megawatts of power - more than many of the state's coal plants, with far less of the climate impact.

The world is starting to feel the effects of the climate crisis, as it makes tropical storms fiercer, fires larger, heatwaves more deadly - and all of these weather events more frequent. Young people especially are demanding government action to curb carbon emissions and build greener economies.

Ibarra heard from many of them.

"While I sympathize with those residents whose views will be affected, my primary concern is ultimately about renewable energy and the urgent need to take some serious steps to address climate change," Ibarra said. "We must demonstrate to the next generation that we are concerned about the environmental harm we have created."

If the Rail Tie Wind Project earns the remaining state and federal permits it needs, the first turbines could be up and operational in a year's time.

Jeff is a part-time reporter for Wyoming Public Media, as well as the owner and editor of the Laramie Reporter, a free online news source providing in-depth and investigative coverage of local events and trends.
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