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Babbitt Ranch wind farm breezes through county planning and zoning

NextEra Wind Farm

Wind turbines at NextEra's wind farm at Perrin Ranch in northern Arizona stand sentinel over the Colorado Plateau.

A proposed renewable energy project about 30 miles northwest of Flagstaff is one step closer to becoming reality after it was unanimously approved by the Coconino County Planning and Zoning Commission last month.

Several commissioners said the decision to approve the project, which hopes to bring just more than 50 wind turbines and a solar array to an area just southeast of the community of Grand Canyon Junction/Valle, was not an easy one.

Commissioners were mostly concerned about the impacts the project -- which is being developed together by Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources and Babbitt Ranches -- might have on avian wildlife such as golden eagles and bats.

Based on survey data, NextEra has said the project’s location keeps it out of way of known eagle nests and bat roosts.

And in the end, commissioners felt that either those concerns could be mitigated or that other priorities took precedence, especially supporting Babbitt Ranches from financial risks that have forced other ranches split up and sell off land.

“Although I am not happy about the viewshed impacts and the wildlife impacts, preserving this working ranch and preserving the un-fragmented landscapes outweighed my opposition to this project, and I did not make this decision lightly,” said Commission Chair Tammy Ontiveros.

And those sentiments were was shared by other commissioners, including John Ruggles.

“Renewable energy, that’s a direction we have to move in; you just cannot deny this,” Ruggles said. “The idea of seeing this kind of property broken up into 40-acre ranchettes; the way I’ve summarized those to people in the past has been: a beat up double-wide with a junk yard attached. I don’t want to see that happen.”

With the Coconino County Planning and Zoning Commission having approved the project, it will now move on for approval by the county board of supervisors.

The project has been over a decade in the making, said Babbitt Ranches President Billy Cordasco. In the 1990s, there was increasing pressure to begin subdividing and selling off Babbitt Ranches land.

But rather than see the ranch broken up, Cordasco said the board unanimously voted to try to take an alternate route. That is when it began looking at locating renewable energy on Babbitt Ranches, Cordasco said.

Once installed, the turbines, which could be over 600-feet tall from base to the tip of the blade, will not impact their existing ranching operations and other recreation activities that locals use the area for.

Meanwhile, Cordasco said the turbines will provide the ranch for one more funding stream through their planned 30 year lifespan, as ranching becomes more difficult.

“I’ve been here for 35 years; we’re starting to look now at what’s the next generation and the generation after that going to be doing. And so a lot of our thinking is starting to come around that, and renewable energy is definitely where those folks are going to want to head and we want to give them the opportunity to participate in that,” Cordasco told the commissioners.

NextEra project lead Wardah Abbasi also said it is a good time for renewable energy projects in Arizona.

In recent years, the Arizona Corporation Commission required Arizona utilities to reduce carbon emissions by 50% by 2042 and reach zero emissions by 2070. Following that, Arizona Public Service, the state’s largest utility, committed to supply its customers with 100% renewable energy by 2050 while Salt River Project committed transition to 90% renewable energy sources in the same time frame.

The entire installation will be located across a 49,701-acre swath of land that includes both private property owned by Babbitt Ranches as well as state trust lands.

NextEra is seeking approval for 60 turbine sites although only 54 turbines will be installed as the company wants some flexibility in where some of those turbines might be placed.

Additionally, between 500 and 800 acres of solar panels are also planned along with underground power lines, a 60-megawatt battery storage system and substation, some maintenance buildings and three meteorological sensor towers.

Although the closest turbines will be about 5 miles from the nearest home, turbines are likely to be visible to those in the area depending on the vegetation and elevation. Turbines will be visible from sections of Highway 180, Red Butte and the existing Arizona Trail will pass through the area as well.

Wildlife conditions

During the meeting there was some negotiation over conditions imposed by the county, specifically whether operational changes could be made in response to impacts to wildlife.

NextEra environmental manager Eric Koster said that while they have been working closely with state and federal wildlife managers on the project, and plan to continue to do so once it is built, it would be problematic for them to commit to taking turbines offline or slow turbines down should issues be encountered.

Koster also said that area is low-risk for impacting avian wildlife and they were already planning to continue surveying wildlife after operations begin.

“Operational changes like a cut in speeds or turning off turbines, that becomes really problematic because our financers, there is no way for them to know if we’re going to meet our obligations under our contracts, so having those kinds of conditions are really challenging,” Koster said.

But that concerned some commissioners, particularly Chair Ontiveros.

“I think what troubles me is we’re saying, ‘Let’s do these studies to learn,’ and then if we do in fact learn something, we have locked ourselves in to a benchmark where we can no longer change it, even if it is to the detriment to an avian species or a wildlife species,” Ontiveros said.

But Vice Chair Don Walters interjected, saying he believed a compromise language could be created.

Walters suggested the wording of a condition could be along the lines of, “NextEra will work with [wildlife managers] to achieve reasonable goals,” in terms of addressing wildlife impacts.

And in the end, the fact that Babbitt Ranches, which has a long history on the land and a reputation for conservation and collaboration, was behind the project seemed a significant factor in bringing commissioners on board.

Public input

The commission did hear from some members of the public who both supported and opposed the project.

Mickey Crank, who said she owns a home near the project site, said she was adamantly opposed.

“We sit on our deck and we see golden eagles and we have bats on our property that fly by every night, and we see all the wild life,” Crank said. “This would be just terribly distressing to know that were right there on the Grand Canyon corridor, one of the eight wonders of the world […] and I can’t stand to think about it being so commercialized, ruining the scenery, the pristine beauty.”

But that wasn’t everyone’s feeling.

Tom Acker, who works at Northern Arizona University on wind energy issues, said he had a different view.

Acker said he believed the proposal was a technically and financially sound project in a good location, and that visitors to the Grand Canyon who saw the turbines would understand that local residents cared about the environment enough to support renewable energy.

Adrian Skabelund can be reached by phone at (928) 556-2261, by email at askabelund@azdailysun.com or on Twitter at @AdrianSkabelund. 

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