Artist rendering of the Strauss Wind Energy Project
An artist rendering depicts what the windmills would look like as part of the Strauss Wind Energy Project south of Lompoc. (Contributed photo)

The Santa Barbara County Planning Commission narrowly denied two appeals regarding another panel’s approval of issues related to the design features for a commercial wind energy farm south of Lompoc.

Neighbors George and Cheryl Bedford and Citizens for Responsible Wind Energy have challenged the Central Board of Architectural Review‘s approval of the Strauss Wind Energy Project.

BayWa r.e. Wind LLC has proposed creating a $150 million clean-energy project with 29 wind turbine generators, as tall as 492 feet, on a ridge off San Miguelito Road. The $150 million project also would include a transmission line, an operations and maintenance facility, a switchyard and more.

The project’s operations and maintenance building would be designed to appear like a barn with colors to help conform to the agricultural setting, according to planner Kathy Pfeifer. Landscaping would be minimized to blend in with grasslands on the site, she added.

On Wednesday, commissioners voted 3-2 to deny the appeals of CBAR’s preliminary design approval for the project, with much of the debate centered on the look of the wind tower generators.

“I do think this particular appeal is an abuse of the process,” Fifth District Commissioner Dan Blough said. “Basically, wind turbines are ugly, but these are about as un-ugly as you can get them and have them still work.”

Chair Laura Bridley, Commissioner John Parke and Blough voted for the motion to deny the appeals, with Commissioners Michael Cooney and Larry Ferini opposed.

Before the vote, staff noted findings for the planning commissioners to make their decision, including that technical constraints limited design aspects for the wind farm.

“The nine findings go into detail on how the Strauss Wind Energy Project is compatible with the surrounding environment in regards to layout, scale, colors, materials, landscaping and lighting, acknowledging that certain project components — wind turbines, substation, switchyard, transmission line — all have technical constraints that limit the project’s design flexibility,” Pfeifer said.

The Bedfords’ attorney, Richard Adam Jr., challenged the CBAR findings, noting that the design review required a determination that the structures would be in proportion to other nearby structures and be in harmony with the surrounding landscape. 

Adam said CBAR members expressed frustration that they didn’t review the behemoth wind turbine structures because of the technical issues despite the fact they made up a bulk of the project.

CBAR relied on a policy, not an ordinance or law, in making its decision, Adam added.

“Approval of these findings is impermissible,” Adam told the planning commissioners. “It’s CBAR all over again.”

Andrew Graf, the attorney for the Citizens for Responsible Wind Energy — a coalition of citizens and labor organizations — also cited concerns about the towers.

“It is clear that the wind turbines and even the meteorological tower are going to be the largest structures in the county by a long shot,” Graf said.

He called the towers “significant structures in a rural area.”

“The commission cannot make the nine required findings for this project based on the evidence that’s before you today,” Graf said. 

BayWa representative Daniel Duke said that the project’s predecessor faced similar challenges from the same appellants more than 10 years ago.

“There’s never been a no vote on this project in the history of the project,” Duke said. “Again, you’re seeing a classic example of handouts and references to land use development codes, in essence just noise that speaks to the fact that we have project opponents that want to try and slow down or delay an important project using any method they can.”

The commission’s most recent decision can be appealed to the Board of Supervisors, county staff said. 

The Bedfords also have taken a legal step in Santa Barbara County Superior Court to stop the project, citing inadequate environmental review. 

Supporters say the wind farm would significantly boost the renewable energy production in the county, now limited to a solar farm in the Cuyama Valley. Opponents have expressed concerns about the effects on bats and birds along with aesthetics and more.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.