Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Public may still get to comment on Sempra weather station

Commissioners conclude that P&Z violated Idaho's open meeting laws

Express Staff Writer

A recent decision by Jerome County Commissioners means the public may have another opportunity to comment on a request for a weather station permit for the proposed 600-megawatt coal-fired power plant near Jerome.

The three-member commission made a motion Tuesday, Oct. 4, to remand Sempra Generation's application for the weather station back to the Jerome County Planning and Zoning Commission.

In their decision, the commissioners sided with Jerome County resident Lee Halper, who filed an appeal stating that the P&Z violated Idaho's open meeting laws by holding an executive session on June 6 when it granted the permit.

"That was our opinion," said Veronica Lierman, commission chairwoman.

Specifically, the commission said the P&Z wrongfully made a decision regarding the weather station permit during an executive session, which makes their final action to approve the permit null and void.

Data from the weather station is required as part of an Idaho Department of Environmental Quality permit needed for construction of the plant proposed by Sempra. The meteorological station will monitor air quality and weather conditions.

Data collected over a year will then be evaluated by Idaho DEQ before the agency decides whether to issue a permit.

The decision to remand the application back to the P&Z won't be finalized until Jerome County's attorney has drawn up the commission's findings and they have signed them, Lierman said.

Once that happens, the commission will discuss what the conditions of the remand will be at a public meeting, she said.

"It will be open to the public," Lierman said. However, she said the public may or may not be allowed to give testimony at the meeting.

The decision on whether to approve the proposed coal-fired power plant is not a foregone conclusion as some have claimed, Lierman said.

Jerome County Commissioners will base their decision on information and testimony that comes out of public meetings, she said.

"We have to keep an open mind about this," Lierman said.

Lierman declined to comment on the recent move by an interim state legislative committee to reject a bill sponsored by Sen. Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, that would have given Idaho greater say over the siting of power plants like the one proposed by Sempra for Jerome County.

Donna West, director of planning and zoning for Canyon County, told the Idaho Legislature's interim energy committee at its Wednesday, Oct. 5, hearing that Stennett's plant oversight legislation would have taken away local control and allowed the state to dictate siting locations to counties.

"I believe the county should have the final say," she said. West also said state and federal regulations already protect counties that are downwind from proposed power plants and another layer of bureaucracy would be redundant.

"Why make it harder?" she said.

For his part, Halper is advocating for the creation of a regional planning and zoning commission that would be comprised of representatives from counties surrounding Jerome County.

State law allows such a body to be created, he said.

"This is a regional issue," Halper said.

Halper is concerned that due public process is still not being followed.

Halper said Jerome County P&Z commissioners believe they have to grant Sempra a permit to build the proposed power plant once the company satisfies all of the regulatory hurdles.

"And they don't," he said.

Halper said the will of the public is also a factor the P&Z should consider before making their decision.

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