Lois Henry

Sunday, Sep 23 2012 12:00 PM

LOIS HENRY: County's wind map loses its teeth

By Lois Henry

If you attend the Board of Supervisors' meeting Tuesday, be prepared to hear the following phrase more than a few times: bait and switch.

That's the reaction I got from residents of the Tehachapi area over the county's latest proposed wind boundary map, which was released on Thursday.

Related Info

Lois Henry hosts Californian Radio every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM from 9 to 10 a.m. You can get your two cents in by calling 842-KERN.

You can see the Planning Department's latest recommendation for a wind energy map with all the attachments at: http://www.co.kern.ca.us/planning

Scroll down to Wind Energy Boundary Maps and each item is listed separately below "Board Letter."

A WHOLE DIFFERENT SPECIES

One of the more contentious wind projects that had been hovering in the background was by the city of Vernon, which owns 18,000 acres north and a little east of the town of Twin Oaks.

The city's wind project consultant, Peter Hervish, told me Thursday that all project planning is officially shut down, at this point.

The city had been doing environmental studies, he said, in hopes of one day presenting an application to Kern County. But with the advent of Kern's latest wind boundary map, which drew Vernon out, Hervish said the city has opted to stop all environmental work.

Hervish said he will be at the Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday to learn more about the map.

Considering Hervish lives in Florida and is likely not traveling here at his own expense, I'd say Vernon's interest isn't exactly ice cold yet.

Which sent me looking through the city's 2011 minutes to see just how far they'd gotten in their planning.

I was stopped in my tracks by Hervish's report to the council on Aug. 2, 2011.

At that point several golden eagles had been killed by massive wind turbines in the Pine Tree project, owned by Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Pine Tree is very near where Vernon had hoped to set its turbines and Hervish was asked about that.

"Biologists argue that the species will be killed off," the minutes quote Hervish as saying. "Hervish advised that he is a believer in Darwinism and that another species will come in who is better able to adapt to the environment."

I had to ask Hervish about that statement, which seemed somewhat, well, callous.

He reiterated his belief in "survival of the fittest" and said biologists are finding species all the time that have an accelerated ability to adapt to the environment.

He expected that kind of adaptation could be true for raptors and turbines.

"Not in one generation, but maybe in 100 generations," he told me.

But, he said, it's clear to him that environmentalists and other organizations would "not allow that experiment to take place."

Supervisors are scheduled to discuss the map and possibly vote on the Kern County Planning Department's recommendation at their Tuesday afternoon meeting.

Residents were upset because they said the map was presented by Planning Director Lorelei Oviatt in August as a zoning ordinance, which would have the legal weight to keep giant wind turbines confined to specific areas.

Oviatt had repeatedly said, including on my radio program (every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM from 9 to 10 a.m.), that people could seek a zone change for wind parks inside two areas outlined in blue on the map.

Outside the blue lines, they couldn't even ask for zoning to allow wind parks, she said.

One month and several public workshops later, however, Oviatt is now recommending that the map be used only as a "guidance document."

Wind developers could ask for a zone change pretty much anywhere, but would be told that areas outside the blue lines would be more "challenging" to get approval as opposed to inside the blue lines.

At first, Oviatt bristled when I suggested this would be seen as a bait and switch. Later she agreed her thinking on the map and its implications had "evolved" over time.

Uh huh. Smells like politics to me.

Remember, it was Supervisor Zack Scrivner, already in hot water with constituents for his perceived cowtowing to monied wind companies, who called for the map in the first place and then tried to rush it through approval with only a few weeks public notice. He tried to sell it as assurance for residents tired of fighting wind projects piecemeal.

Scrivner's hope for cover blew up in his face, however, when residents saw how the map would vastly increase wind project areas and they believed it would fast track projects even more.

The map was pulled back last January and reworked with much smaller wind areas and the zoning ordinance concept. That caused large landowners to balk, however, and even threaten to sue.

Which makes me wonder exactly what, and who, helped influence Oviatt's "evolved" thinking.

Either way, there were several hurdles to designating all land in the county that fell outside the blue lines as "no go" for wind, she told me.

Mainly, such a zoning change would require a massive, time consuming and expensive environmental process.

Instead, she said, she decided to seek board direction on a county policy toward wind energy development.

She likened her recommendation to the board's "policy" on General Plan amendments.

Say you have two developers. One wants to put a subdivision in near Hageman and Allen roads and another wants to plop his way out west of Enos Lane.

Oviatt has been directed by the board to let those applicants know that the Hageman/Allen subdivision, which would be contiguous with existing growth and could tie into roads, sewer, water and other services, would face far fewer challenges than the Enos Lane project, which wouldn't be able to tie into any of those services.

Hmm. I had no idea we had such a policy. Most likely because I've seen supervisors give the nod time and again to exactly that kind of leap frog growth.

Though Oviatt insisted this "guidance map" would be a big step from where we are now on wind developments, I don't see it.

"People really feel a loss of social justice with what the Planning Department and supervisors have been doing to us," said Mike Fortuna with Friends of Mojave, one of several groups that have sprung up in recent years to try to gain some control over where wind turbines are placed.

Part of the problem, he said, is each project is done separately. Residents aren't given a full picture of how many projects are in the wings.

Lest anyone think this is just a NIMBY issue over aesthetics, remember, these turbines are more than 500 feet tall, nearly twice the height of the Statue of Liberty.

With federal tax breaks making wind development more lucrative and AB32 requiring California utilities to increase their renewable energy portfolios, wind has exploded in recent years.

Wind developers are pushing north of Tehachapi into mountainous terrain so rugged they have to cut 35 miles of switch backs to make five miles of roads to lug up their equipment. They're shearing off mountain tops for pads. And their turbines have already killed several protected golden eagles. Many fear the endangered California condor could be next.

Though Oviatt has said she is extremely sensitive to the raptor issue, the Planning Department recommended and supervisors approved the North Sky wind project a year ago even after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service warned against approval based on possible bird kills.

Back to the latest map iteration, Oviatt acknowledged her recommendation is "softer" than it started out, but noted there may not be much happening in wind from here on out anyway.

Transmission capacity to get wind power from the mountains to Southern California is all spoken for, she said. Congress appears likely to let the wind tax credit lapse. And she doesn't have any new wind applications.

That may be true for now, but after the election the tax credit will probably be renewed as it has been for decades, AB32 is forcing a greater need for wind power and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is well on its way to getting the environmental work done on a massive new transmission station to take power down the east side of the Sierra. The Barren Ridge Renewable Transmission Project is expected to provide about 1,100 megawatts of additional power transmission capacity, according to the LADWP.

All of which means this could just be a lull before another wind boom.

Fortuna said he wasn't sure how his group will address the new map on Tuesday.

Other groups that have formed in Tehachapi, Sand Canyon and the Piute mountains to fight wind projects were similarly mulling this latest turn of events.

Personally, I think a map, particularly this one, won't be much help to anyone. Groups would be better off pushing for more and earlier notification of wind projects so they can get their oar in the water sooner.

But the map wasn't all bad, it drew together all the disparate groups that had been fighting alone. Now they can share information, keep tabs on the county and use their numbers for greater political clout.

That's better than a map any day.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com

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