After hours of testimony and months of deliberation and delay, the Morrow County Planning Commission decided the Willow Creek wind farm is in violation of state noise standards at nearby homes.
Like every development in the case so far, however, the commission's vote was not simple. While first deliberating the subject at its Tuesday night meeting, commissioners seemed at odds, confused by the parade of acoustical experts and lawyers who previously spoke for and against the wind farm.
"I have a very hard time coming to a concrete conclusion on which study I feel is accurate," Commissioner Pamela Schmidt said. "I'm not a licensed engineer in acoustics myself and there's been so much information I can't make a decision."
The noise standard for wind farms, contained in Oregon Administrative Rule, states that noise from a wind facility may increase the ambient level by 10 adjusted decibels, or 10 dBA. A wind developer may measure the background noise to determine what the ambient noise is, or it can use an assumed level of 26 dBA.
Invenergy's acoustical expert, Michael Theriault, argued that while the wind farm does often exceed 36 dBA at nearby homes, background noise is also high at those times so the standard floats - the farm is allowed more decibels.
Acoustical experts for three of the wind farm's neighbors argued that because Invenergy chose an assumed background of 26 dBA during the permitting process, it could never exceed the 36 dBA limit.
The rule does not direct agencies on how to administer the rule or decide conflicts such as the one between Invenergy and its neighbors. The agency that originally enforced the rule, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, has since defunded and destaffed its noise program.
So the decision fell to the county planning commission. To find Willow Creek Energy out of compliance would be to shut down the multi-million-dollar, 72-megawatt project, which is paying the county $395,296 a year according to a unique tax arrangement called a strategic investment plan.
"I think I heard from both sides that certain conditions were broken," said Commissioner Jim Key. "So I think we'd almost have to say it (Invenergy) hasn't lived up to the conditions that were put on it."
Chair David Sykes and others on the commission clearly disagreed. A compromise finally came from Commissioner Tucker Rice. The group was poised to vote on the issue when he spoke up and said he'd like to make an amending motion. If the commission voted that Invenergy was in violation of the noise rule, he said, they would have six months to come into compliance.
The commission approved the amendment with Justin Nelson and Pamela Docken dissenting. The commission then unanimously voted that Invenergy was in violation of the state noise rule and therefore out of compliance with its conditional use permit.
After the vote, Invenergy representative Mike Collins said he could make no comment.
The group of neighbors - Mike and Sherry Eaton, Dennis and Lorrie Wade, Dan Williams and Dave Mingo - went out for a drink accompanied by their lawyer, James McCandlish.
"The planning commission ruled the only way they could, which was to find Invenergy in violation," McCandlish said. "The ball is in Invenergy's court to comply."
When asked what compliance might look like, Williams said, "Either meeting the state standard or mitigating some kind of noise easements or property buyouts. Maybe I'm going too far by saying property buyouts, but it's one or the other."