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Alternative energy — wind and solar — tends to get discussed across much of the nation in broad and generally favorable terms. Who can argue against harnessing the power of the wind and sun?

Kittitas County, though, consistently provides a real-world example of what it means to propose and construct an alternative energy facility — the good, the bad, the frustrations, etc.

The latest example was the decision by the Kittitas County Hearings Examiner to deny a conditional use permit for Heelstone Renewable Energy’s Westside Solar project for a 46-acre plot of land on Westside Road near South Cle Elum.

This project is notable because it was the first to go before the county since the Kittitas County commissioners approved a revised land use map for alternative energy projects. In this instance the project was proposed on land where the use required a conditional use permit.

As name name implies, a conditional use means the use is allowed with conditions.

Hearing Examiner Andrew Kottkamp noted in his decision. “The applicant has failed to satisfy its burden of proof that the proposed use is not detrimental or injurious to the character of the surrounding neighborhood.”

This decision largely was based on complaints from neighborhood residents about visual impacts from the proposed array. Kottkamp noted that the character of the surrounding neighborhood is rural, residential and agricultural uses, and that the proposed use of the site is detrimental to those uses because of the project’s visibility to other properties.

Kottkamp went on to say that if the facility could be adequately shielded year-round with appropriated natural vegetation the detriment to the adjoining neighborhood could be mitigated.

This highlights that a solar farm is not a prohibited use at that location — it’s a conditional use. The ball would seemingly be back in Heelstone Renewable’s court to come back with creative natural shielding idea. Although it would seem that adequate shielding potentially could also shade the solar panels, which would be a detriment to the project.

But as Kittitas County residents are well aware Heelstone has the option of taking its ball to a different court — the state Energy Facilities Site Evaluation Council.

EFSEC is a much friendlier territory for alternative energy project proponents — so far EFSEC has yet to see a project it hasn’t been happy to approve for Kittitas County, regardless of Kittitas County’s view on the project.

Given EFSEC’s red carpet treatment, it raises the question of how demanding Kittitas County should be? Is there some acceptable spot where the county is getting even a modicum of influence on a project without pushing the project proponent to EFSEC where the county will not have any say?

Heelstone’s next step will indicate the effectiveness of a far more detailed county map for alternative energy projects. If it fails to provide an avenue for proponents it will become another binder on the shelf as proponents turn exclusively to EFSEC.

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