Gorge wind-farm proposal headed for high court

Source: By Eric Florip,The Columbian • Posted: Friday, May 3, 2013

A Portland group’s challenge of a controversial plan for a wind farm in the Columbia River Gorge is to be heard before the Washington Supreme Court.

More than a year after its approval, a proposed wind farm in the Columbia River Gorge remains in legal limbo. Now the controversial plan is headed for a date with the Washington Supreme Court.

The Whistling Ridge Energy Project received a green light last year from then-Gov. Chris Gregoire. But the decision also scaled back the original proposal, reducing the number of wind turbines from 50 to 35 in order to protect views in the federally protected Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

Opponents, led by Portland-based advocacy group Friends of the Columbia Gorge, mounted a legal challenge that’s now landed before the state’s highest court.

The group presented a wide range of arguments in its initial brief to the court, arguing that project developer Whistling Ridge Energy and those who approved the plan didn’t properly evaluate the environmental impact to the area.

Much of the concern centers on wildlife, which would be displaced or harmed by dozens of wind turbines spinning in a valuable natural setting, said Nathan Baker, Friends’ staff attorney.

And given the relatively small capacity of the project — about 75 megawatts at most — “there really is very little benefit,” Baker said.

SDS Lumber Co. and Broughton Lumber Co. first proposed the $150 million wind farm in 2008. The project would put 35 wind turbines on private forest land in Skamania County, just outside the scenic area boundary and near the town of Underwood, Skamania County.

The project would be on 1,152 acres, but most of that land would continue to be used for commercial forestry, as it has for decades, according to Whistling Ridge.

The project went through all required studies and scrutiny over years of review before its approval, developers argued in court filings.

At the time of Gregoire’s approval last year, Whistling Ridge President Jason Spadaro expressed doubt as to whether the wind farm would pencil out financially in a scaled-back form. But Spadaro said last week he thinks Whistling Ridge is worth pursuing.

Friends of the Columbia Gorge filed its initial brief with the court in February. The respondents in the case made their written arguments this month.

The Supreme Court is likely to hear oral arguments in June, Baker said. A ruling could come a few months after that, he said.