For the third week in a row, overflow crowds filled the supervisors' chamber for nearly five hours on Nov. 21 to hear the county planning commission discuss the possible permitting of the Terra-Gen Wind Farm Project. Thirty-one members of the public who had not been given time to speak at the previous meeting were allowed their time at the microphone.
About half of the people initially listed did not show up, apparently discouraged by their long wait the previous week. Of the 15 who did, three supported the project, citing the urgent necessity of dealing with climate change; the others recommended denial, basically saying the project was in the wrong location and would do more harm than good. Impacts to wildlife, including the endangered marbled murrelet, fire danger caused by high-tension electrical lines running through forest and desecration of a site deemed sacred by the Wiyot Tribe were the three most commonly stated reasons.
At-large Planning Commissioner Brian Mitchell was absent, which proved significant when it came time for the commissioners to vote.
Terra-Gen Senior Director for Wind Development Nathan Vajdos, before requesting that the commission approve his project, listed several ways in which it had been modified since the last hearing to make it more acceptable to the community.
A bird technical advisory committee would be established to evaluate bird mortality from the project. Herbicides and rodenticides would be banned. Scent detection dogs would be used to locate bird carcasses. To help the county economically, Terra-Gen would establish a "point of sale" in Humboldt County, basically letting the county receive sales tax credit for purchasing the turbines.
Planning staff then discussed the project in great detail, adding a few conditions to the approval documents and removing others.
Then they re-opened the floor for public comment on the applicant's statements and the staff report. Another 43 individuals commented. Chair Robert Morris limited these comments to one minute each, which meant that the speaker barely had time to adapt the microphone to face level before the warning light started flashing. The vast majority of people used their minute to criticize both the project and the adequacy of the planning documents.
"You're not sitting here determining the future of the human race," Dan Berger told the commissioners. "You're determining the future of Humboldt County."
"This is a greenwashed false solution to climate change," said Isabelle Oshoff.
Another speaker, Marie Grottery, cited studies showing the useful life of wind turbines was nowhere near 30 years.
The Wiyot Tribe presented a petition, saying it was signed by 1,800 individuals opposing the project.
One speaker was so vehement that the sheriff's office had to remove him from the room.
A 9-year-old girl, however, urged the commission to accept the project, "or we will all die," she said.
After public comment was closed for the second time that evening, the commissioners began their deliberations, arguing with each other and questioning the planning staff for about an hour and a half on every aspect of the project and the ways in which it would be supervised and mitigated if it went forward.
Some of the commissioners seemed most interested in the financial aspects of the project, ranging from the amount of money it would bring into the county to how best to determine the cost of the decommissioning bond.
Others were more interested in the project's environmental impacts and its effects upon the Wiyot people.
Commissioner Melanie McCavour, after reminding the audience that commissioners are not elected officials and their decision could be appealed to the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, spoke for a half hour on the project's flaws and her dismay that so many people in the county were being pitted against one another. She also said she believed the Indigenous people of the county were being given short shrift.
An environmental scientist, McCavour noted that the project summed up the huge double bind our civilization is facing — how to hold back life-threatening climate change without also destroying the biodiversity that maintains life. She also said that the turbine models were old and would soon be considered obsolete, and that the economic value of the project was marginal for Terra-Gen.
"The international community would be appalled," McCavour said. "The idea that we would be pulling up plants and offering them back to the tribes is embarrassing, shameful and insulting. .... You will make the international news for trying to put an old-style wind farm on sacred ridges in the world's only temperate redwood rainforest. Is that really what we want to do?"
Fourth District Commissioner Mike Newman said he saw a lot of NIMBY-ism in the project's opponents. He noted that people do not seem to be cutting down on their electrical usage or driving less. He said he thought the project would make Humboldt more self-reliant and praised Terra-Gen for trying to accommodate the county's concerns.
First District Commissioner Alan Bongio noted that the project was a way for the Russ Ranch to stay whole and that subdividing the land into cannabis farms was a lot worse for the environment.
Third District Commissioner Noah Levy noted that the Wiyot do not have legal access to the ridges and denying the project would not necessarily save the land from environmental degradation.
Morris, who represents the Second District, noted that the job of the planning commission was to ascertain if a proposed project conformed to existing regulations, not to create policy, which was already done with the General Plan that residents already had ample opportunity to comment on. He noted that even as the commission deliberated, communities to the east were under a red flag alert, and that PG&E was not able to make the necessary changes to keep the state fire safe. Moreover, he said that the Humboldt Redwood Co., one of the property's owners, had a "sterling record" of land management.
"This project," he said, "is a giant step in the right direction."
Fifth District Commissioner Peggy O'Neill said that she opposed the project and if the community clearly did not want the project built, it should be rejected. She supported offshore wind energy as a better alternative.
Levy praised the public for its enthusiastic participation. He said that a great deal of information had come in too quickly for anybody to properly evaluate, including some that had arrived just that morning. He noted that the lack of preparation would make the county vulnerable if a lawsuit were to occur — which several public speakers had promised.
Finally, Newman moved to certify the EIR and approve the necessary permits. The move was seconded by Bongio and a roll call vote was held, with Newman, Bongio, and Morris voting yes and McCavour, O'Neill and Levy voting no.
Since Mitchell was absent, that made a split vote, which Planning and Building Director John Ford said was not a majority. He asked if there were any conditions that could be added to the project that would induce anybody to change their vote. None of the commissioners responded.
Vajdos, moreover, said that he wanted a clear yes-or-no answer that night.
Ford then said the other alternative was to vote to deny the project. McCavour immediately moved to deny the project, with O'Neill seconding. Newman and Morris voted against the motion, Levy after some indecision voted to support it, as did McCavour and O'Neill. After a moment of nail-biting suspense, Bongio voted with McCavour, O'Neill and Levy. The project was denied.
This is probably not the end of the matter. By plunking down $1,250, Terra-Gen can appeal the decision to the board of supervisors. Stay tuned.
Elaine Weinreb is a freelance journalist and prefers she/her pronouns. She tries to repay the state of California for giving her a degree in environmental studies and planning (Sonoma State University) at a time when tuition was still affordable.