Two days before a meeting to approve a zoning change, development plan, and 1041 permit for a wind farm in the Calhan area, El Paso County Commissioner Amy Lathen commented, "We are certainly getting more input on this than I think I've ever seen."
Indeed, on Dec. 19 the commissioners and interested members of the public endured a meeting that lasted from 9 a.m. until about 8 p.m. The meeting began with presentations from county staff and Golden West Power Partners employees, before moving on to a lengthy citizen comment period, and ending with approval for the project on a 3-1 vote. Lathen voted against the project; Commissioner Darryl Glenn was absent.
The approval clears the way for an approximately 32,000-acre area to be used for a 250-megawatt wind farm consisting of as many as 153 turbines, support buildings, and a 25-mile transmission line. While this is the first major wind project approved in El Paso County, the energy it will produce is already under contract to Public Service of Colorado, a subsidiary of Xcel Energy, for 25 years. None of the power will be used locally.
Golden West plans to make a $1.625 million direct payment to the county in its first year, when its 10-month construction timeframe is also expected to generate 980 jobs. During that time period, which must begin within the next two years, the project will likely involve 188 truck trips daily, and 346 trips in lighter vehicles. The payment will help control dust on the area's dirt roads, and restore roads to their prior condition following construction. Smaller annual payments thereafter will cover costs like inspection and law enforcement.
The project will sit on private property, and land owners have signed lease agreements. Many neighboring property owners have also signed agreements. Commissioners added language to prevent wind turbines from being erected within a quarter-mile of neighboring properties whose owners had not signed such contracts. Commissioners also added language to ensure that turbines are removed in a timely manner whenever the project is decommissioned.
County records show that 24 people spoke in favor of the turbines, and 12 against, though one man who was against the project said several citizens "gave" their time to him.
Many supporters said the turbine leases would allow them to keep land that had been in their families for generations; that the wind farm would rejuvenate the sagging economy; or that they supported green power. Richard Wilson, a resident of the area and a board member of the Colorado Farm Bureau, says his organization is a big supporter of wind power because it helps keep farm families on their land with minimal impact. He said he believes it's a private property right to decide whether to install turbines, and added, "I actually think this will increase land values."
Others weren't so keen. Concerns included a variety of issues — one man even argued that the wind farm might prove an unprofitable "Ponzi scheme" — but some of the most common concerns were that turbines would be noisy or block views.
Golden West did extensive research on the impacts of the project including a noise study, a shadow flicker analysis (think of the way shadows move when a fan is near a light), a soils and geology report, an electromagnetic interference report, wildlife reports, a transportation impact report, and more. The results appeared to show that the wind farm would have minimal impacts on residents, especially after construction is over. Both Golden West and county employees also noted that studies have shown that wind turbines don't negatively affect property values.