LARAMIE — Albany County government could be moving toward stopping all wind energy development in the county if it adopts regulations being proposed by a Laramie law firm, a wind energy company representative said this week.
The Albany County Planning and Zoning Commission met Wednesday to discuss amendments to wind energy regulations. The topic became a matter of tension when ConnectGen, a renewable energy development company based out of Houston, Texas, announced plans to construct a 504-megawatt wind farm stretching across state and private land on both sides of U.S. Highway 287 just south of Laramie. Between 85 and 150 turbines, depending on the yet-to-be determined turbine model, could span 26,000 acres near Tie Siding. ConnectGen’s project is in the permitting stages.
But the proposal has seen the opposition of many locals, including around 60 residents and landowners being represented by Nicholas and Tangeman, LLC. Mitchell Edwards, an attorney at the law firm, wrote a letter to the commission indicating that it was his finding the county’s regulations were “lacking and deficient,” with siting and design standards failing to comply with state law and the county’s comprehensive plan. They were also less stringent than those found in other jurisdictions, including some in Wyoming, Edwards said.
County Planner David Gertsch presented his own office’s proposed changes to wind regulations Wednesday to follow the directive to comply with state statutes. While there wasn’t a lot of change needed, Gertsch said, he did address areas such as clarifying the definition of enlargement, adding language about transmission lines and mineral rights inclusion in notices, and language regarding road maintenance agreement with the state for travel impacts.
Gertsch told the commissioners that Edwards’ proposed changes would need a lengthy review by county planners because they included “a lot of complicated and technical things that have been added and I have no idea where they came from.”
“It doubles the amount of regulations we have,” Gertsch said.
Offering a characterization of Gertsch’s set of changes as “absolutely accurate” and “what’s needed,” Albany County Attorney Peggy Trent also cautioned the commissioners in how they approach Edwards’ proposals, urging them not to give any particular entities a louder voice in government than those with other opinions.
“I’m really concerned that Mr. Edwards put forward a draft and we’re giving him prime time to present his rendition, though very well comprehensive and written, but my concern is why don’t we do that for the aquifer people?” Trent said. “The aquifer people have written and we don’t give them prime time to go through. The point here is that we should be focused on what do our (regulations) need and what further regulation (is needed)? It’s not appropriate to give one side their version of what it should be.”
Trent was referring to a group of local residents concerned about Albany County government’s policy toward protecting the Casper Aquifer that supplies about half of Laramie’s drinking water.
All five commissioners expressed a desire to hear from all stakeholders in wind development in Albany County, including ConnectGen and the landowners who would have turbines built on their land.
“When we started on this I was speaking about how we’re going to handle it and I think I never once said this is going to be one-sided,” Chairman Shaun Moore said. “It’s going to be open and transparent for everyone involved. ...But Mitch and his group does have a right to speak, and I also think ConnectGen and the landowners will get an opportunity to speak as well.”
Edwards told commissioners Wednesday that he never expected them to adopt his proposal wholesale and expressed a desire for all sides to be heard. While he acknowledged the ConnectGen project led to the law firm’s work on wind energy regulations, Edwards said he didn’t have any particular project in his crosshairs.
“I want to make it clear what we’re looking at is not specific to ConnectGen, but would affect all wind energy facilities within Albany County,” he said. “This is not to point at ConnectGen.”
Among a catalogue of examples from his proposal, Edwards outlined a conflict in notice requirements in existing regulation.
“In current regulations, there will be a 20-day public notice prior to the public hearing before the board of county commissioners,” Edwards said. “However, state statute and our current regulations also require that notice provide notice to the public that they have the right to comment and that public comment period is 45 days. I have a hard time understanding how a 20-day notice equates to adequate notice for a 45-day comment period.”
The proposed regulations were concerning for Rail Tie Wind Project Manager Amanda MacDonald, who also addressed the commissioners. The setback distances, she said, were most important, calling Edwards’ proposed distances “arbitrary and extreme” and “dramatically larger than anywhere else in Wyoming and the rest of the United States.”
“To use Mr. Edwards’ example of Sweetwater County, which he’s held up as a good example, their setback distances from residences are 5.5 times turbine height, which is consistent with Albany County,” MacDonald said. “Mr. Edwards, on the other hand, has proposed a distance of 2 miles from residences. Similarly, Mr. Edwards noted the setback distances from platted subdivisions in Sweetwater County is 1.25 miles. Yet in his own regulations it’s proposed as 4 miles.”
The proposed regulations would “essentially kill all wind development” in Albany County, ConnectGen Outreach Manager Deby Forry.
“There’s a playbook on how to kill a wind project — this playbook is being used right here,” Forry said.
The commissioners set a work session for July 8 at a yet-to-be determined start time where they said all parties would have a chance to speak, including a representative from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, if available.