UPDATE: State Supreme Court rules in favor of wind farm

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

Published:

Updated: August 29, 2013, 9:51 PM

 

The Washington State Supreme Court has upheld the approval of a controversial wind farm in Skamania County, turning back a legal challenge from two advocacy groups that aimed to block it.

The court’s unanimous ruling, released Thursday, allows the Whistling Ridge Energy Project to move forward. The proposed wind farm was given a green light — in a scaled-back form — by the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council in 2011, then approved by then-Gov. Chris Gregoire in 2012.

But even with its latest affirmation, the wind farm likely isn’t going to begin construction right away, according to its developer.

An appeal by Friends of the Columbia Gorge and Save Our Scenic Area argued that project developer Whistling Ridge Energy LLC and those who approved the plan didn’t properly consider potential environmental harm and other impacts to the area. The groups highlighted numerous perceived shortcomings in the project’s initial application.

But the Supreme Court ruled that many of the petitioners’ arguments held the Whistling Ridge project and its application to an unreasonably high standard that goes beyond legal requirements — which were met.

“Essentially, the application is a starting point of a longer process and more specific decisions are addressed throughout the process,” the ruling said. “Any minor deficiencies in the application itself are to be expected and do not warrant reversal. Invalidation of the completed review and recommendation would also defeat the purpose of the extended hearings and ongoing oversight of the project.”

Still, the court found that some issues raised in the challenge were “not ripe” for resolution. Should the project advance, additional review will give Friends and other groups the chance to weigh in. Friends of the Columbia Gorge staff attorney Nathan Baker said his group won’t be silent if Whistling Ridge moves forward.

“We will fully participate in those public processes when they occur,” Baker said.

The court’s decision upholds a curtailed version of the original Whistling Ridge project, which reduced the number of wind turbines from 50 to 35 in order to protect views in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

SDS Lumber Co. and Broughton Lumber Co. first proposed the wind farm in 2008. The $70 million project would put 35 turbines on private forestland in Skamania County, just outside the scenic area boundary near Underwood. Most of the project’s 1,152-acre area would continue to be used for commercial forestry, as it has for decades, according to Whistling Ridge.

Whistling Ridge Energy LLC is a subsidiary of SDS Lumber. Company president Jason Spadaro said he welcomed Thursday’s court ruling.

“The delay of the project is unfortunate on a number of levels for the communities and the economic opportunity it creates,” Spadaro said. “But we’re glad the right decision was reached in the end.”

But Whistling Ridge will have to make sure there’s a market for its energy before it can break ground, Spadaro said. That doesn’t appear to be the case right now, but Spadaro said he hopes market conditions can improve in the coming years.

“That could all change very quickly,” Spadaro said. “As the economy recovers, the demand for electricity will go up.”

Wind farm tax credits have been rolled back recently. But state renewable energy requirements are scheduled to ramp up in the coming years.

State approval essentially gives the Whistling Ridge project a 10-year window to move forward.

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro; eric.florip@columbian.com.