Mission Creek Wind Farm Impacts Misrepresented by Corporate Rep
County Accommodates Developer, Never Contacted Adjacent Property Owners
BY ELIZABETH SCHOLL
It started innocuously enough. A neighborhood meeting, where 20 invited property owners were informed that a new industrial wind farm would be built on private property adjacent to their homes.
Ben Ellis, a smooth talking pitchman from Jackson Hole, told the assembled group in late July that a wind project was “under consideration,” but that “nothing is definite unless an energy buyer is found.” But his words and his presentation make it sound like a done deal. He also made it abundantly clear that, while he was willing to take constructive suggestions, he didn't want to hear any discussion that neighbors don't want the project or would like to have it recon-sidered.
When someone in the audience asked about wildlife impacts, Ellis told the assem-bled neighbors that “migratory birds, threatened and endan-gered species, will be considered,” according to notes kept by one attendee. Further, the notes read: “Says he's “working closely with Fish and Wildlife,” and doesn't anticipate any problems based on a biologist's review. “A Fish and Wildlife guy who visited site said it looked OK to him.”
Some of the neighbors assembled asked about impacts on property values. Many of those in attendance, and others who weren't invited, had significant investments in their properties. Many had engaged in substantial rangeland improvements and voluntarily created conservation easements, restricting future development, based on the remarkable views and the wild, untamed nature of the place where they live. Ellis attempted to reassure them that any concerns about real estate values were unfounded; that numerous studies showed minimal impacts on surrounding real estate values resulting from wind development. He didn't point out that such studies were in eastern and midwestern agricultural areas where views and wildlife generate almost no value. Again, the message was clear: you have no legitimate reason to object to the project.
Ellis' confidence was well placed. His company, Sagebrush Energy of Jackson Hole, had been working on this project for two and a half years. They had negotiated with the owners of the land where the turbines would be placed for over two years, offering to pay leases to the land owners for turbine sites.
More importantly, they had been meeting regularly with the Park County administration, determining that there were no zoning or land use regulations that would protect adjacent landowners from real or perceived harm from the project. In fact, the county seemed unusually accommodating to Sagebrush Energy. The public notifications issued by the county were largely promotional materials written by Sagebrush. In two and a half years of discussions with Sagebrush, the county never notified neighboring taxpayers that such a project was in the works.
This delay became more important when it was revealed that Sagebrush was reportedly close to signing an agreement with Northwestern Energy to buy the output from the Mission Creek Wind Farm, as early as September. If that occurred, the neighbors would have little or no recourse to oppose the project. Within weeks of learning about the project, they would be stuck with an industrial wind farm, in some places only a few hundred yards from their homes.
The neighbors reacted swiftly. They organized a community interest group. Friends of Mission Creek placed an ad in the local newspaper, wrote letters to the editor, and created a web site. Most importantly, they did what Sagebrush apparently hadn't done; they investigated the wildlife resources in their area.
For years, property owners had seen majestic Golden Eagles and other birds soaring on the bluffs nearby. Friends of Mission Creek investi-gated the area and found that the very location where the turbines would be placed had been studied as a Golden Eagle nesting area as far back as the 1960s, and studied again intermittently. That made the area the most heavily and continuously studied eagle nesting area in the American West. Ornithologists we spoke to were intimately familiar with the studies, made by the famous Craighead family for almost half a century. So, they wondered, if the scientific community was familiar with the studies, how could the wildlife authorities that Sagebrush claimed to have consulted with not be familiar with them.
State and Federal wildlife authorities reported, in fact, that no one from Sagebrush had ever contacted them about the project. Sagebrush belatedly initiated their own study, reacting to ads and public statements from the group publicizing the eagle populations that would be threatened by wind turbines near nesting areas.
At the time of this writing, the final disposition of the Mission Creek Wind Farm is uncertain. But the lessons of the short and heated battle seem clear.
Local and county governments owe it to their constituents to provide a public review process for wind projects. That this project could go from first notification to an executed agreement with no input from neighbors or the community is unacceptable. Communities need not zone against wind projects, but the rights of all affected parties should be taken into account and sufficient time allowed for all to provide input.
Wind projects deserve more scrutiny. No one involved in this dispute is opposed to wind energy development. Smart, sustainable energy must be a part of America's energy future. But the Sagebrush plan, like many others around the country, would have generated a windfall profit worth millions of dollars to a developer who has never built a wind project. As demonstrated elsewhere, such projects are a quick-flip financial play, combining generous tax incentives with short-term investment horizons. With those financial incentives, wise energy policy and the interests of the surrounding community and wildlife will continue to be sacrificed for the enrichment of a few.
Community activism still works, though the Friends of Mission Creek are not political activists. They are amateurs of varying backgrounds and talents. They took on a wealthy, powerful developer with little more than passion and the advocacy of eagles to buoy them. They slowed a project that was moving rapidly towards approval. Only time will tell whether they and the eagles that soar over their heads will prevail.
Elizabeth Scholl is a Bozeman resident and owner of Ecolibrium, Inc., a business planning firm that combines economic and environmental opportunity. She and her husband own property on Swingley Road in Park County.