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Thursday, Oct 10 2013 08:00 PM

Deal would turn out the lights on some wind turbines

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BY JAMES BURGER Californian staff writer jburger@bakersfield.com

Kern County planners, wind energy companies and Federal Aviation Administration officials have hatched a plan that will shut off 227 bright red lights perched on the top of massive wind turbines in the Kern County portions of the Mojave Desert.

And future wind energy projects would also see fewer lights installed.

A study by Clancy JG International determined that 64 percent of the existing lights could be removed without compromising the primary goal of the beacons: helping pilots avoid night-time collisions with the 500-foot-tall wind power towers.

Several years of wind energy boom in the mountains east of Tehachapi and the desert around Mojave drew the ire of locals as hundreds of the massive machines were installed in stately rows along ridgelines and across the desert.

One major complaint was the red lights shining from the top of the towers -- lights powerful enough, critics said, to drown out the stars.

On Tuesday, Kern County supervisors will hear a report on the plan to reduce that impact from the Kern County Planning and Community Development Department.

A power-point presentation for the report shows that while red lights would remain on many turbines at the edge of wind farms or on the ends of rows of turbines, a large number of lights in the center of wind fields could be darkened without compromising pilot safety.

According to a letter from Kern County Planning Director Lorelei Oviatt, the Federal Aviation Administration has approved the plan.

Approval came, the Clancy JG International report states, after FAA officials visited Mojave and did both daylight tours and a night aerial survey of the wind fields.

Kern County Advance Planning Division Chief Craig Murphy said that if supervisors agree with the report on Tuesday, planners will move immediately to shut down the lights.

"The wind companies have committed to work with us to get this done," Murphy said. "Most of them are trying to be better neighbors."

Murphy said the county always had to rely on FAA approval before the lights could be removed.

"They were something that the county didn't have any authority to say yes or no to," he said.

But FAA officials are satisfied that pilot safety is being preserved by the plan, Murphy said.

Also during Tuesday's meeting, supervisors will discuss a report from Kern County Counsel Theresa Goldner advising patience in dealing with Internet sweepstakes cafes.

The Kern County District Attorney's office, which has closed nine of the businesses by alleging they were illegal gambling operations, is currently involved in a legal battle over their enforcement at the Fifth District Court of Appeal in Fresno.

The county could, Goldner said, try to write up separate local laws that would use zoning to make the cafes illegal.

But if the District Attorney's office is successful in its court battle, those ordinances would be unnecessary, she wrote.

"If the Court of Appeals rules against the District Attorney, it would be prudent at that time to begin the process of using zoning ordinance to regulate these enterprises," Goldner wrote.

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