Mad River Union
HUMBOLDT – In a surprising twist, a planning commissioner who had complained that “everything pretty much gets said no to” in the county changed his stance on a controversial wind energy project and joined a majority Planning Commission vote to deny it.
The Terra-Gen wind energy project proposed for Monument and Bear River ridges was denied in a 4-2 commission vote on Nov. 21 following another lengthy hearing filled with dramatic moments.
With Commissioner Brian Mitchell absent, the commission was left with an even number of members and an initial motion to approve the project drew a 3-3 tie vote.
A second vote, to deny the project and its Environmental Impact Report (EIR), was expected to have the same result as the commissioners who supported the project seemed confident in doing so.
One of them inexplicably changed course, however, breaking the gridlock and voting for denial to the delight of the project’s opponents.
But the Board of Supervisors will have definitive local say, as the commission’s decision is sure to be appealed.
Terra-Gen’s divisive plan to install 47 600-foot tall turbines on the ridges was again debated during the hearing’s public comment sessions on the project and its EIR.
The EIR details the project’s benefits, including displacement of almost 400,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide and enough renewable energy generation to power 70,000 county households.
The minority of project supporters who spoke during public comment emphasized the importance of local renewable energy production.
Larry Goldberg, the vice-chair of the Redwood Coast Energy Authority’s Community Advisory Committee, noted that meetings were held countywide to gauge public opinion on energy production and “the vast majority of people” supported a mix of renewables, including onshore wind.
He added that the county “needs to dramatically reduce” fossil fuel consumption to meet emissions reduction targets.
Other speakers said failure to do so will trigger more intense environmental impacts than those caused by the project.
A variant of that argument was voiced by a nine-year-old boy who told commissioners, “If climate change continues, the earth will die – all of it, the birds, the monkeys, the sharks, the fish and us -- we will die without reaching adulthood, that is why you need to put in the windmills.”
The project’s opponents agree on the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions but argued that new infrastructure should be appropriately-sited.
And they said the ridges are not appropriate for an industrial wind energy farm that will kill birds and bats, seconding EIR comments from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The Bear River Ridge siting is especially disturbing to many, as it is considered a sacred prayer site by the Wiyot Tribe – which strongly opposes the project -- and includes a variety of culturally-significant plants.
The conclusion of public comment set a stage for commissioners to react to the many hours of commentary they’d listened to over the course of three hearings. The project’s divisiveness was readily apparent as commissioners ventured their views.
In a lengthy statement, Commissioner Melanie McCavour flatly stated that the project “never should have been proposed on ridges considered sacred by our local tribes – that is the first reason why this is the right project in the wrong location.”
She added that the siting violates the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and if the project is built, “The international community would be appalled.”
One of the EIR’s mitigation measures is to remove plants from Bear River Ridge and give them to the Wiyot tribe. “The idea that we are pulling up plants and offering them to the tribes is embarrassing,” McCavour said. “It’s shameful – it’s insulting.”
If the project is approved, she continued, “You will make the international news for trying to put an old-style wind farm on sacred ridges in the world’s only temperate redwood rain forest.”
McCavour summarized her condemnation of the project by saying, “If you look at it from a global perspective, it sounds, honestly, not just insulting but crazy.”
A conflicted Commissioner Noah Levy resented McCavour’s descriptions. “I think anyone that thinks this is an easy call is missing something,” he said.
In comments that he would later partially apologize for, he told McCavour, “I think you vastly over-simplified the arguments in favor of one direction over the other so I felt a little bit insulted that it would just be stupid for anyone to support this.”
Like other commissioners, Levy said Bear River Ridge will be vulnerable to a more impactful consequence – subdivision – if the project isn’t approved and drew audience reactions when he suggested that the tribe’s wishes shouldn’t control the county’s land use decision-making.
Earlier, Commission Chair Bob Morris and Commissioner Alan Bongio both had described the project as a hedge against subdivision of the Russ Ranch on Bear River Ridge.
Following McCavour’s speech, Bongio offered “a little bit more of a Humboldt perspective,” saying, “Ever since I was old enough to pay attention, I’ve watched every project that’s come to this county get denied.”
And the Russ family is “working with the company to do something that is going to keep this land intact,” he said.
Commissioner Peggy O’Neill, planning director of the Yurok tribe, which also opposes the project, questioned why the project would be supported. “I’ve sat here and listened to the community that is probably going to be the most impacted by this project tell us over and over again that they don’t want it, for very good reasons,” she said. “I don’t see how we can sit here and say that we’re going to have to have it anyway.”
With Commissioner Mike Newman in support of the project, the lines seemed to be clearly drawn – except in Levy’s case. So there was a sense of suspense as the commission launched into a vote.
Newman’s motion to approve the project was seconded by Bongio and the vote hit a 3-3 gridlock when Levy, after a pause and a sigh, voted against the motion, joining McCavour and O’Neill.
Morris asked Planning Director John Ford if the failed motion equates to a denial. Ford recommended specifically voting on denial as a procedural matter.
The expectation was that the follow-up motion would yield another tie and a continuance of the meeting, which Levy had earlier asked for due to new information in the EIR.
McCavour’s motion to deny the project was seconded by O’Neill. Levy voted for it, then Newman and Morris voted against it.
Bongio was next in the sequence but hesitated for a few moments, then almost inaudibly said “yes” to the motion.
Peals of audience applause and cheers followed, growing louder after McCavour and O’Neill rounded out the 4-2 denial vote.
The next phase of the controversy is expected to be the appeal to the Board of Supervisors but an approval there wouldn’t end the power struggle.
Lawsuits challenging the EIR would follow and if McCavour’s prediction of international scorn is correct, a go-ahead for the project will probably take the battle to the landscape and civil disobedience.