The Umatilla County Planning Commission is facing a tough challenge: weighing the rights of some county citizens to enjoy their view of the Blue Mountains against the rights of landowners to do what they want with their property.
That's not an easy decision, but more than 150 citizens asked it of the commission Thursday night when they came to a meeting in which Milton-Freewater-area resident Richard Jolly officially proposed his Goal 5 amendment to set aside a large swath of land east of Highway 11 as a viewshed free of wind turbines - an area to be protected for its aesthetic, natural resource and wildlife values.
Facing a tough decisionCommission member Clinton Reeder saw the problem as much bigger than just looking at a viewshed.
"When you put all the pieces of this puzzle together you've surfaced, the scope of what needs to be addressed is going to be far wider than wind towers," he said. "In order to deal with the wind tower issue we've got to broaden the scope of our thinking. ... The wind towers are the tip of the iceberg and we've got to view the whole iceberg."
The planning commission is in the first step of the Goal 5 process: information gathering. County Planning Director Tamra Mabbott said much of the information the commission is asking for is part of the second step - the economic, social, environmental and energy impact study - which is looked at after the commission choses to designate an area a "significant" resource. The commission hasn't made that decision yet.
The commission also has the ability to augment Jolly's proposal to make something it sees as more fitting of the area's needs.
"We are land-use planners,"?said commission member John Standley. "We are not environmentalists, we're not hydrologists, we're not archaeologists. We're land-use planners. We're looking at a lot of information given and it makes me feel like I'm trying to take a bite out of a watermelon with my hands tied behind my back. There's been a lot of stuff thrown at us. It's a lot of critical stuff from a lot of people and a lot of entities."
Not everyone was in favor of Jolly's proposal, but not everyone was against it either. Despite the sensitive nature of this topic, and the tendency for people to get hot and bothered over others telling them how to use their land - whether they actually own it or feel a protective ownership because they see it from their front porch - the meeting remained mostly polite and cordial. Speakers from either side received applause. Everyone listened with wrapped attention even after more than two hours of testimony. Only occasionally did a speaker's comment elicit snickers or whispers from watchers.
The proposalJolly's proposed Goal 5 amendment asks the planning commission to set aside an area bounded by the Washington state border on the north, the Union and Wallowa counties to the east, the Umatilla Indian Reservation to the south and Highway 11 to the west.
"It's to protect all of it,"??Jolly said. "It's so big because look at how many miles you can see here."
Jolly said he and others picked the boundary lines by thinking about the drive from Pendleton to Milton-Freewater along Highway 11.
"As you leave Pendleton and break out up on the heights there, you can see all the way to state line,"?he said. "By Adams the mountains start encroaching against the highway and the highway encroaches against the foothills, and you get a more intimate view of the mountains as you get closer to Milton-Freewater."
Jolly and Mabbott also reviewed current protected areas impacted by other Goal 5 resources like deer and elk winter habitat, American Indian cultural areas, significant natural areas and scenic views on Highway 204 (Tollgate Highway).
"The foothills of the Blue Mountains are a significant area because they contain many of the important attributes that are valued in rural communities. That's why we live here," Jolly said. "Some of us could go and have jobs in cities making quite a bit more money, but it's not a money issue. It's quality of life."
Jolly and an entire team of people made presentations during the first two hours of the meeting. Jolly's counterparts included Eric Quaempts, department of natural resources director for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, and Steve Ron Brown, Milton-Freewater businessman and member of the Walla Walla Irrigation District.
Quaempts, who said the tribes have not taken a stance on the Goal 5 viewshed issue, did compare development of wind energy to the development of hydro energy, calling on the memories of Celilo Falls. He showed a photo of of the area where the falls used to be, now flooded by Columbia River waters pooled from dams, with windmills peaking over the edge of the Columbia River Gorge.
"The point of this is seeing the impacts of hydro production in the river and the floodplain, and now that the production's moving upslope, there'll be impacts to other resources,"?Quaempts said. "We're not opposed to wind energy development, but it's important to recognize that there are impacts and those need to be considered in planning."
Brown warned the commission about the possibility of suits from third parties, as his irrigation district faced when it wiped out salmon in parts of the Walla Walla watershed. He warned bats - which orchardists use for insect control - or bald eagles - a protected species - could have the third parties represent them in court if those animals or others like them die in wind farms.
Next steps"The first step here is understanding there is this unique, valuable resource we want to protect and knowing the soils and knowing where the roads go in, to me that's the next step. I want to be convinced we do have this unique resource here to protect first," said Don Wysocki, commission member.
Another commission member, Frank Kaminski, zeroed in on that word, unique. He said again and again, he wanted to know how the viewshed is unique. What sets it aside from other views? Why should they protect it as a view, not as a wildlife area or a natural resource area, but a view?
At the end of the meeting one thing was for sure: The commission wanted to learn more. Members wanted to know more about the watershed, about elk experiment at the Starkey research station, about soil conservation.
And the conversation will continue. On July 23 the commission is holding a second meeting on this proposal, this time at the Pendleton Convention Center, to let those who didn't get to speak Thursday have their say.
The commission asked Mabbott to come back with information about the what a temporary moratorium on wind energy development would do to the area and what kind of development impacts the current Goal 5 resources have.