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Amid ethic charges, wind farm siting bill dies

An Idaho Falls Republican accused two unidentified House colleagues of ethical lapses in a hearing during which lawmakers also killed a bill that would have put strict new prohibitions on where new wind turbines could be built.

The measure would have blocked wind turbines within two miles of improved residential property without the owner’s permission, as well as forbidden counties from approving wind energy facilities whose spinning blades cast a flickering shadow on somebody else’s property or a roadway.

Before the 11-8 vote, however, Rep. Janice McGeachin told the House State Affairs Committee April 6 that she knew of two lawmakers who hadn’t publicly disclosed their personal financial ties to wind projects while voting on a previous measure this session to extend a tax break for wind energy developers. Another panel Republican, Rep. Eric Anderson of Priest Lake, urged McGeachin to speak with House Speaker Lawerence Denney.

McGeachin declined to name those she believes are violating House ethics rules, adding she’d be doing some “soul searching” over whether it was her responsibility to raise concerns with them.

“When these issues are so driven by money like this, it clouds people’s judgment and drives wedges between communities,” McGeachin said. “Sadly, that’s what money does. Greed destroys our judgment.”

According to Idaho law, public officials are forbidden from taking official action or making a formal decision or formal recommendation concerning any matter where they have a conflict of interest and haven’t failed to disclose them. Separate House rules limit activities of representatives with a personal interest until those interests are disclosed, but they may vote upon any question or issue to which the conflict relates, unless they ask to be recused.

In a brief interview, Denney said he wasn’t aware of lawmakers who stand to benefit directly from the wind industry who voted without declaring a conflict first.

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said it should be up to McGeachin to bring her concerns to leadership.

“Our interests are the people’s interests,” he said. “Anything we can do to reassure that is good.”

Flying accusations of malfeasance during the hearing on whether to limit where wind farms can be built underscores just how contentious the debate over this alternative form of producing energy has become in Idaho.

Five years ago, Idaho was a desert for wind power, while now there are more than 400 megawatts of electricity on line, with hundreds more waiting in the wings as federal and state tax benefits that seek to make the industry more competitive with coal, hydroelectric and natural-gas fired power plants have lured developers including General Electric, Netherlands-based Shell and Great Britain’s BP.

Utilities and wind developers spent much of the last three weeks negotiating a compromise on an extension of tax breaks for alternative energy, a bill still going through the Senate.

And after residents of Idaho Falls who feel surrounded by the hundreds of turbines in the hills above town failed to win a moratorium on new wind projects two weeks ago, they brought the bill discussed April 6 to limit where they could be built.

Connie Clawson, a real estate saleswoman in Idaho Falls, broke down when telling lawmaker how she’d had four home sales in a subdivision located near wind turbines fall through.

The homes were beautifully prepared, she said. Owners had gone extra lengths to make them more attractive to buyers.

“There is nothing more tempting to the buyer than the smell of freshly baked cookies,” Clawson said. When they saw the “monstrous turbines,” however, “they marched right out of the house,” she said.

Wind industry proponents, meanwhile, argued the restrictions likely would have put a halt to virtually all future projects. For instance, meeting shadow requirements would have been difficult, given long shadows the early morning and evening sun casts over the landscape. And winning agreement from all landowners within a two-mile radius would have invited mischief, said Scott Montgomery, who is developing a 150-megawatt wind farm on 5,000 acres in Bingham County.

“It’s an opportunity for that landowner to hold the developer hostage,” Montgomery said.

Lawmakers who dumped the bill said it would be more appropriate to investigate wind turbine siting at an interim committee on energy that’s planned for this summer rather than pass something quickly during the last week of the 2011 Legislature.

“It is not a committee that sits idly by,” Rep. Elaine Smith, D-Pocatello, said.

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