Looking to zap the county with enough renewable energy to power 50,000 homes a year, Santa Barbara County planning commissioners unanimously greenlighted plans to put a large-scale wind farm in the foothills south of Lompoc. The first of its kind in the county, the project was met warmly by commissioners on Tuesday during a full-day special hearing on the topic.
After debating the project’s merits for nearly eight hours, the commissioners voted not only to certify the wind farm’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR) but also to grant the coveted Conditional Use Permit, without which this unique project would fail. “I am looking at the negative aspects of the project and they are minor in comparison to the positive ones : I absolutely support this,” said 4th District Commissioner Joe Valencia, in whose district much of the project will reside.
In the pipeline since 2006, the wind farm - which aims to spread 65 turbines, each standing approximately 400 feet high on 2,950 acres of private ranch land in and around San Miguelito Canyon - was not without its detractors on Tuesday. While a vast majority of the 37 public speakers supported the plan proposed by international wind energy giant Acciona, several who might soon be living in the shadows of the turbines expressed reservations.
“We will all be visibly impacted by these. [The turbines] are going to be huge,” explained Jane Fassold, who lives on the edge of nearby Mesa Oaks. “I would like to see this get passed down in Santa Barbara or Montecito. It would not work.”
Beside viewshed impacts, other neighbors complained about the noise associated with the turbines-which county staff reported would not exceed, at worst, 50 decibels, or the equivalent of a “very quiet residence”-as well as the FAA-required blinking red lights that would sit atop many of the devices. Their complaints essentially boiled down to a sentiment put forth by neighbor George Bedford: “We are not against the project. We are just against the project affecting our quality of lives.”
While the annual 285 million kilowatt-hours that Acciona hopes to deliver is just what South Coast environmental organizations have been lobbying for, the project was also criticized by groups like the Audubon Society and the Environmental Defense Center for the impact it will have on bird and bat populations. Both groups asked for more stringent precautions and monitoring protocols to would reduce the number of creatures killed by the turbines’ whirling blades.
The terms of the EIR require Acciona to position the turbines to be sensitive to habitat areas and migratory routes, but the fact remains that, according to the EIR, at least 270 birds are known to fly through the area, including four golden eagles. (It should be noted, however, that the major migration route in the area is roughly 20 to 40 miles east of the project site.) “We have very low migratory populations in the area, and low year round populations as well,” said Marie Campbell, who helped conduct nearly 1,000 hours of bird studies for the EIR. “And the birds that we do have are primarily very low to the ground.”
With that in mind, the project features a monitoring program that will run for two years once the first turbine starts spinning. County biologists will survey the surrounding area looking for animal fatalities and will alter turbine sites and hours of operation accordingly. Should the first two years prove to be incident-free, additional mortality studies will be conducted in the sixth and tenth years to ensure that nothing has changed. Also, in a tweak that is the first of its kind in the nation for wind projects, the county’s Planning and Development director has the authority to shut down the wind farm or certain turbines on the wind farm should conditions arise that indicate a large-scale kill-off of birds or bats has occurred or is likely to occur.
Next up for the wind farm is a return to the county’s Board of Architectural Review in the coming weeks.