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Wind farm debate splits property owners

Landowners and governments across the West are wrestling with how to balance private property rights against the far-reaching visual impact of wind turbines and transmission lines.
Wind Debate
Rancher Richard Grant Jr. sits next to the one-room schoolhouse where his father and grandfather attended classes on the family's homestead. He is interested in leasing his family's ranch for a possible wind farm. Some of his neighbors oppose the idea of building a wind farm in the area. Matt Joyce / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Richard Grant Jr.'s family has ranched Wyoming's rugged granite-and-grass hills for generations, their 123-year-old ranch dotted with reminders of their long history — an historic schoolhouse, an old red barn and the parcels of land sold away during hard times.

But it wasn't until a few years ago that a radical prospect blew in with the stiff winds that sweep the ridge tops of the northern Laramie Range: wind turbines.

Grant welcomes the chance to get into wind energy development and generate some income. His courting of wind developers however has put him at odds with some of his neighbors, who consider a large-scale wind farm to be the industrialization of their backyards in the sparsely populated region.

"My goal is to stay in ag, be able to pass on our generations of history," Grant said. "This gives us that opportunity."

As the nation's demand for renewable energy grows, landowners and governments across the West are wrestling with how to balance their cherished private property rights against the far-reaching visual impact of 400-foot-tall wind turbines and the transmission lines needed to move power to distant cities.

"That's something you're hearing a lot about — the landscape and the viewsheds," Grant said. "And I can see their points. But if the viewsheds were worth so much, I wouldn't be worrying about making an extra dollar somewhere."

Neighbors form group in opposition
Grant said he's been in negotiations for six months with Wasatch Wind, of Heber City, Utah, to lease his ranch for possible wind farm development. A representative of Wasatch said the company is in the early stages of studying the area for a possible wind farm.

Some of Grant's neighbors are having none of it. They formed the Northern Laramie Range Alliance this spring to fight industrial scale wind development in their namesake mountains and a segment of a proposed transmission line that would cut across the range.

Kenneth G. Lay, a founder of the group, said its members aren't opposed to industrial scale wind development in places such as Wyoming's eastern plains, where landowners are actively marketing their land to wind developers. But the group doesn't want a big wind farm in an area it describes as "scenic, multiple-use landscapes."

The group is also concerned about developers quietly negotiating with individual landowners.

"We think there needs to be a responsible siting process that is going to balance a lot of interests that everybody has," said Lay, who spends his time on his ranch neighboring Grant's while not working in Washington, D.C., as treasurer of the World Bank.

"We believe that it is not appropriate for one or two big landowners to essentially dictate what is going to happen to everybody else's property."

Development faces obstacles
Wyoming and the West are home to some of the nation's strongest wind resources. The American Wind Energy Association, a trade group, says Wyoming has 85,200 megawatts of developable wind capacity, or seventh most in the nation. That's enough to power about 1.7 million homes, or half of Los Angeles County's estimated 3.4 million households.

Wyoming currently produces 816 megawatts of wind energy, ranking it 12th in the nation and behind California, Washington, Oregon and Colorado in the West, according to the wind association. Texas leads the nation with its 8,361 megawatts of wind power.

Developers have swarmed Wyoming in recent years with designs on the state's wind energy potential. But such development faces multiple obstacles, including a shortage of transmission lines to move power to big cities.

The Northern Laramie Range Alliance successfully fought off Rocky Mountain Power's proposed alignment across the range for a segment of a proposed transmission line to carry Wyoming wind power to Idaho and beyond. More than 640 people signed petitions against the proposed route, according to the group.

Richard Walje, president of Rocky Mountain Power, said the company has agreed to find another alignment for the disputed segment.

"The most significant issue and the one that's always the most contentious are the visible impacts of the line, or the not in my backyard part of it," Walje said.

Wind farms or housing subdivisions?
The Northern Laramie Range Alliance is also gathering petition signatures against plans by Wasatch Wind or other potential developers of industrial scale wind farms in the northern Laramie Range. The group had gathered 543 petitions as of this week.

Their message was getting through to Gov. Dave Freudenthal's office. At a state wind symposium last week, Aaron Clark, an energy adviser in the governor's office, acknowledged the organized public opposition and encouraged wind developers to focus on areas to the north and southeast with minimal landowner or environmental conflicts.

The opposition hasn't distracted Grant from his pursuit of a wind lease. He spends about two hours a day on wind business, including hashing out a contract with Wasatch that he said would protect his interests.

Converse County has no zoning laws, but Grant said he is trying to minimize impacts on his neighbors. Grant said he sees wind development as a chance to diversify his ranch's revenue, and he would rather see a wind farm than further subdivision of the land for new houses.

"What it does is it provides us with the opportunity to continue ranching with minimal disturbance," Grant said. "But the other part of that is it's a private property issue. We have the right to do what we want, and they have the right to do what they want on their property."

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