Rules for wind farms debated

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By David Giuliani

Many area residents opposed to wind farms near their neighborhoods said Wednesday they liked a proposed three-mile setback from their homes.

But an industry representative contended that the setback rule in a proposed San Miguel County ordinance would keep wind farms out of the county.

On a windy afternoon, nearly 100 people packed into the County Commission’s chambers for a discussion on the county’s proposed wind ordinance. A task force has been meeting since early last year on the subject.

The county’s current 7-year-old ordinance has a one-mile setback from homes for wind turbines. At one point last year, the task force increased that number to eight miles, but then dropped it to three.

Many at Wednesday’s commission meeting feared that the county had further decreased the setback to a mile. Indeed, a Valley newsletter indicated that it could be as low as 1,200 feet, which is less than a quarter mile.  

But Alex Tafoya, the county’s planning and zoning supervisor, said he had accidentally released a draft that included the 7-year-old one-mile setback. He said it should have read three miles.

That relieved much of the audience — many of whom live in the Valley, where a Chicago-based wind-energy company is proposing wind turbines.

In fact, Tafoya received applause from the audience several times during a hour’s worth of public input.

Gloria Luz Gonzales, a Valley resident, said she and others don’t oppose wind energy. Rather, they oppose siting wind farms near their homes, she said.

“We love this life, and we love this land. That’s what we are for,” she said. “We natives of this land see it as sacred. It is my duty to help protect  it.”

Others questioned how the project could benefit San Miguel County and New Mexico, speculating that the electricity would go to California and other states.

While many speakers praised the three-mile setback, Mark Jacobson of Invenergy, the company that’s considering a wind farm on the mesa near Bernal, criticized the county’s ordinance.

“A three-mile setback does not work for any one project that I’m aware of,” he said, prompting applause.  

Jacobson got backing from the Las Vegas-San Miguel Economic Development Corporation, which opposes the proposed ordinance.

Roberto Rios, EDC’s executive director, said the county would surely keep its culture and its views, but that the wind industry would not come to the county if the ordinance passes.

He said the state has estimated that the proposed wind farm near Bernal would bring $800,000 in revenue for the area each year for the next decade.

Outside the meeting, he said EDC’s executive committee had determined that the three-mile setback and other requirements in the ordinance were burdensome.

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After the public’s feedback, County Attorney Jesus Lopez warned that if the county enacted restrictions that would, in effect, block wind farms entirely, they would be struck down in court. That’s because such rules would amount to an unconstitutional taking of property without just compensation, he said.

“We have to be sensitive to the takings clause (in the Constitution). Let’s have a balanced ordinance,” he said.

He also warned against the provisions in the proposed ordinance that require a good-faith effort from companies to get reviews from various state agencies for wind-farm projects.

But he said that the county has no authority to require that state agencies provide opinions.

“The state agency isn’t going to do it unless it’s required by law,”  he said.

He said projects would “be in limbo forever” because wind industry-opponents would argue that companies didn’t show a good-faith effort.

The county commissioners agreed to send the proposed ordinance to the task force for more changes.

No applications for wind farms are pending before the county.