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Gazette Premium Content Planning Commission approves wind farm for eastern El Paso County

By Ned Hunter Updated: November 27, 2013 at 8:13 am

Light pollution from bright red aviation warning beacons, possible cell phone disruption, noise and money were among the issues - both pro and con - voiced by residents who might end up living near a proposed wind farm in eastern El Paso County.

After a lengthy meeting Tuesday, the El Paso County Planning Commission approved an overlay zoning ordinance that would allow construction of a 37,000-acre wind farm project. The project now moves to the El Paso County Commission, and certain aspects of the project also must receive approval from the FAA because of the proximity to local and military airports.

Five residents spoke in favor of the motion and eight against during a 7.5-hour meeting that started at 9 a.m. and broke for a 45-minute lunch. Commission members voted 7-0 to approve the zoning ordinance with 40 conditions.

If constructed, the 250-megawatt wind farm will generate electricity for Public Service of Colorado customers, a subsidiary of Excel, for the next 25 years. The project includes 147 General Electric wind turbines each standing 437 feet tall when the blades are extended upward, said Greg Nelson of Energy Renewal Partners. Nelson's company is an adviser to the Golden West Wind Energy project.

Commission Chairman Steve Hicks said the project was "of significant importance" before calling for the vote.

The height of the turbines concerns members of the Palmer Land Trust. Members of the trust gave a presentation of how the wind farm could cause visual impairments to users of the Paint Mines Interpretive Park, which is home to unique geological formations.

The land trust wants seven towers moved prior to approval of the project; one of those towers now would be 810 feet from the Paint Mines, said Stephanie Thomas, director of Land Stewardship for the trust. The trust wants the seven towers of concern to be moved at least a mile from the park.

"A total of 33 of the turbines would be visible for certain areas of the recreation area," she said. "Those turbines would change the use for the park user."

Jane Smith, chair of the Sierra Club Pikes Peak Group, said in a letter to the commission that noise from turbines close to the park would affect park users.

Efforts toward the more than $400 million wind farm project began about 10 years ago. Nelson said studies show winds blow straighter and more consistently in the proposed construction area than in neighboring areas.

On Tuesday, Nelson was asked why Golden West appeared to be trying to fast-track the project at the end of the calendar year. .

"They are trying to take advantage of project tax credits that are available only to the end of 2013," Nelson said.

One landowner said she is now receiving $500 a month for the right to put the wind farm across her property. She said that amount will increase to around $8,000 to $10,000 a year when the windmills are built.

Another landowner, Richard Wilson, told planning committee members the yearly payments - which he did not specify - will allow him to keep the farm his family bought in the late 1800s.

"I am on the edge of having to sell my property," he said. "This gives us some hope that we can continue to own the ranch."

Still, other county residents fear the wind farm will destroy their rural way of life.

Rich Hahn told planning commission members one of the wind farm's transmission lines will run 400 feet from his home.

"And I don't want to live next to a 400-foot fan," he said.

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