Friday, July 8, 2005

Special-use permit for coal plant appealed

Express Staff Writer

A Jerome County activist has filed an appeal to county commissioners in connection with a high-profile special-use permit granted earlier this month by the county's Planning and Zoning Commission.

Lee Halper is challenging the permit that allows Sempra Generation, a San Diego-based energy production company, to install a meteorological station in the county to monitor weather conditions and existing air pollutants.

That data is required as part of an Idaho Department of Environmental Quality permit needed for construction of a coal-fired power plant proposed by Sempra.

The company announced in April it wants to build a $1 billion, 600-megawatt coal-fired electric-generating facility about nine miles northeast of Jerome.

P&Z commissioners granted the special-use permit for the meteorological station June 6.

Halper filed the appeal July 5, claiming among other things that the commission violated Idaho's open meeting laws by reviewing during an executive session whether to allow Halper's 24-page exhibit.

"There was no legal justification for an executive session," Halper said Thursday. "They made an illegal decision in an illegal meeting."

Halper said he was not allowed to submit his exhibit during the P&Z's meeting May 23.

At the P&Z deliberation hearing on June 6, the commission went into executive session, according to the appeal.

Immediately following that session, commissioners told Halper he could present the exhibit.

"They can't justify not accepting it in one meeting then accepting it in another," he said. If such a decision was made in executive session, Halper said, it would violate Idaho's open meeting laws.

Jack Nelsen, chairman of the Planning & Zoning Commission, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Art Brown, P&Z administrator, was not available Thursday.

Halper also claims that there are conflicts within the county's ordinance. He said staff reports must be submitted to the commission seven days before a hearing.

Since exhibits also have to be submitted seven days before a meeting, Halper maintains that the staff report cannot adequately address submitted exhibits, nor could he file an exhibit that contradicts the findings in the staff report.

Part of Halper's appeal is a request for a waiver of transcript, which would cost an estimated $877.

"That's a road block," Halper said. "It's designed for the rich. The poor man can't appeal? It's a deterrent to (the public's) ability to seek redress ... it's a violation of civil rights."

Halper received a notice Thursday from Jerome County commissioners advising him of a hearing on the waiver. The meeting is scheduled for July 13.

Halper also hopes the commission will form a regional planning and zoning commission to study the larger issue of the proposed coal-fired power plant.

Idaho does not have siting laws that would require broader oversight to power generation facilities.

Sen. Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, introduced a siting bill during the last legislative session but it did not garner enough support to get printed.

An interim energy committee is studying siting legislation this summer, and may present another draft to the Legislature in January.

"This is a big enough, all-encompassing project not just affecting Jerome County, but Twin Falls County, Cassia County, Blaine County, Gooding County," Halper said. "The commission should take the leadership position and ask each of these counties to participate."

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