Local birding expert Homer Hansen is weighing in with his concerns to the Cochise County Board of Supervisors regarding the proposed Red Horse 2 Wind Farm, west of Willcox.
At its April 10 meeting, the County Planning and Zoning Commission approved a special use permit for the proposed wind power generation farm between Willcox and Cascabel.
Arizona Audubon has since filed an appeal of this decision.
Hansen has several recommendations for the County Board of Supervisors, which is scheduled to meet at 10 a.m., on Tuesday, June 11 in Bisbee.
He is the chairman of the Wings Over Willcox (WOW) event held annually in January, which has poured nearly $2 million into the Willcox economy over the last 20 years.
“As a fifth-generation native of Cochise County, I have a vested interest in our community, said Hansen, explaining that he is actively involved in different committees, including WOW, City of Willcox General Plan Technical Advisory Committee, and the Cochise County Recycling Committee.”
In his May 24 letter addressed to District 3 Supervisor Richard Searle, Hansen said that one of his primary concerns is that “the special use permit for this project was approved without research into existing planning requirements and other counties’ experiences for comparable projects in the State of Arizona.”
He said that both Coconino and Navajo Counties have existing special use permit requirements and policies for wind energy, which are readily available online.
Hansen included the documents to which he refers with his letter saying, “I found these documents to be highly informative with regard to planning considerations for wind energy, and feel Cochise County should strongly consider adopting some sort of requirements before any approvals are granted.”
In a March 25 letter to the County Planing and Zoning Commission, the Arizona Department of Game and Fish (AZGF) “states specific concerns and recommendations for birds, bats, and other wildlife in connection with the Red Horse 2 wind energy project, including a recommendation of two years of data collection as part of the site evaluation and pre-construction monitoring,” he said.
Hansen pointed out that the AZGF study “is required to be submitted as part of the special use permit application in Navajo County,” adding, “Coconino County requires pre-construction data on existing wildlife conditions to approve utility-scale wind projects.”
“Based on the significant economic impact to Cochise County from nature tourism and birdwatching, it would be incomprehensible not to include” the March 25 AZGF recommendations as part of the conditions for approval of the permit, he said.
Hansen went onto say that the development packet submitted to the County Planning and Zoning Commission stated, “The wind farm will create up to four long-term jobs for permanent residents in Cochise County.”
Hansen then quoted a story in the April 3 edition of the Range News, saying “In addition, Mr. Glenn Holliday of Torch Renewable Energy stated, ‘The project will also create about four long-term stable high paying jobs for local residents.’”
“However, there are no assurances or guarantees that existing residents of Cochise County will be hired to fill the permanent long-term employee positions,” he added.
Hansen said that in Coconino County the employees hired for these positions came from out of state, according to his communications with Project Director Karin Wadsack, Northern Arizona University’s Institute for Sustainable Energy.
“It seems to me that there could be requirements – through the permit or other means – to ensure the permanent jobs would be hired from within the county as promised,” he said.
Hansen also pointed out that the participation process for the permit application was limited to the state land department and two private property owners – those living within one-half mile of the project site.
“The lack of any participation process for the general public is a deficiency given the scale of this project,” said Hansen, giving the example that residents living along Taylor and Airport Roads “will be directly impacted during the construction process. Should they not be included?”
Toward the end of his May 24 letter to the Board, Hansen said, “I am concerned that wind energy projects are not viable without federal funding.”
“Given that federal funding for these types of projects is currently under evaluation by the United States Government Accountability Office, the pace of the proposed project may be imprudent if federal funding changes,” he said.
“Rushing through the permitting process does not leave time to evaluate all potential outcomes and their ramifications, leaving the potential to cause more harm than good.”
In conclusion, Hansen said, “A project of this magnitude warrants careful consideration, and I appreciate the additional effort required to come to a decision.”
On April 10, County Planning and Zoning Commission members heard the request of Red Horse 2, LLC and Torch Renewable Energy, LLC, to build a 28-turbine wind farm located primarily on state trust lands that will produce around 51 megawatts of power on 220 acres.
Most of that parcel is located on state trust lands and a small portion of the acreage is on private land. The turbines could be as tall as 497 feet with blades up to 197-feet long.
Though County Planning Manager Michael Turisk stated that Audubon Arizona did not offer a comment, according to Huachuca Audubon member Tricia Gerrodette, the organization had not been informed of the plans for a wind farm.
After reading the article in the Herald/Review, Gerrodette said Arizona Audubon strongly disagreed with the commissioners’ decision not to consider the request of Arizona Game and Fish.
In a letter to the commission, Ginger Ritter, AZGF project evaluation program specialist, asked the commissioners to postpone the decision until more data was available on the locations, nesting sites and activities of the golden eagles and long-nosed bats in the vicinity.
She stated in her letter: “It is our understanding that per the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and subsequent guidance drafted by US Fish and Wildlife, the locations of and activities of golden eagles and active nests both on Red Horse Wind and the vicinity may ultimately influence turbine locations, depending on turbine setback recommendations put forth by the Eagle Conservation Plan, which will be developed by the applicant, USFW and Arizona Game and Fish. … After review of the special use permit application and available data on the project, the department recommends postponing approval of the application until more wildlife data is available to assess the applicant’s affects on wildlife populations. If this is not possible, we recommend putting our recommendations as conditions to the permit.”
Arizona Audubon executive director Sarah Porter wrote in a letter to the county Board of Supervisors who will hear the appeal, “AZGF noted that data previously collected for the site support the conclusion that an assessment of the project’s risks to wildlife will necessitate studies of the project on avian and bat species. Accordingly, AZGF requested that the Planning and Zoning Commission place stipulations in the permit to ensure that studies are done and appropriate measures taken to mitigate adverse impacts on wildlife. We support this position so all involved can better understand the potential impacts as well as the values of this project … We believe it is in the county’s economic interests to take action on the matter to assure the project’s impacts on wildlife have been assessed and a management plan has been developed. We support renewable energy projects, properly studied and properly mitigated, and that is all we request.”
Porter also noted that most counties add such stipulations, while Cochise County does not.
“Stipulations are very common in special use permits issued by other Arizona counties and are particularly compelled by the circumstances of this case,” noted Porter.
The County Board of Supervisors is expected to hear the appeal at its June 11 meeting.