County Planning Commission green-lights Lompoc wind project without eagle permit

File image courtesy of Santa Barbara County
TRUST IN THE WIND: The Santa Barbara County Planning Commission recently granted BayWa permission to begin operating its wind farm, which encompasses 2,970 acres of land near the city of Lompoc.

A renewable energy company was recently cleared by the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission to begin operating 29 wind turbine generators in the Lompoc Valley, but not without some chilly feedback.

Representatives of the Santa Barbara Audubon Society and the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture, and Business (COLAB) were among the public speakers at the Planning Commission’s Aug. 9 meeting who argued that the BayWa wind farm shouldn’t be approved until it obtains a golden eagle incidental take permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Audubon Society and COLAB on the same page—you’re setting a precedent here,” Andy Caldwell, executive director of COLAB, said during public comment. “We are not against wind. … But what we are for is equal application.”

Before the Planning Commission voted to approve BayWa’s request to begin operating in the meantime while the company waits for its take permit application to be processed, Caldwell argued that it would be an unfair exception for BayWa to proceed without the permit.

“Our members have gotten bludgeoned to death by this county on ESA [endangered species act] and we cannot withstand this issue of somebody getting a free pass,” Caldwell said.

In a public comment letter from Tony Francois, an attorney representing COLAB, Francois wrote that if BayWa is allowed to operate before obtaining the eagle take permit, “the message this action will send to the county’s thousands of small business owners and employees and landowners who are not well enough connected to get special favorable treatment will undermine the credibility of county leaders as well as the laws that get enforced unevenly.”

Francois also called in during the Planning Commission’s Aug. 9 meeting to recommend that the commission require a supplemental environmental impact report (EIR) before letting the BayWa project move forward. Julie Jones, an attorney representing BayWa, responded.

“The standard for the county to be able to require a supplemental or subsequent EIR is whether the proposal before you shows, in this case, a substantial increase in the severity of a previously identified environmental impact,” Jones said. “There has not been evidence presented to you that would allow you to make that finding.”

In lieu of BayWa awaiting certification from Fish and Wildlife, one new condition of approval for the wind farm drafted by county staff is for the company to hire an independent consultant to survey the property for eagle carcasses once a week, rather than every other week, as originally required.

If any golden eagles are killed prior to obtaining the eagle take permit, BayWa is required to make a payment of $30,000 per eagle to a county-designated raptor protection center, according to the staff report.

“My bottom line conviction is the project needs to move forward,” Planning Commissioner C. Michael Cooney said during deliberations. “I think that day has come where we as a society are obligated to see what we can do to develop alternative sources of energy and this is one before us with contracts in place, ready to go, and I don’t want to slow that process.”

The Planning Commission ultimately granted BayWa’s request to alter its conditions of approval and approved the revised project in a 3-2 vote, with commissioners Larry Ferini and Vincent Martinez dissenting.

Ferini expressed his concern that the Planning Commission shouldn’t be burdened with pardoning BayWa’s mistake of applying late for the eagle take permit, while Martinez said he worried that the permit won’t be obtained for years.

“We have no timeline. It could be months, weeks … years,” Martinez said. “I’m not going to back away from this idea that this application process was known to the applicant as much as it’s known to me today. … I’m really on the fence in regards to what’s going on here.”

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