Hundreds attend nuke hearing
The Mountain Home Junior High School auditorium was filled to capacity last Wednesday evening when the Elmore County Board of Commissioners conducted a public hearing on a rezone application submitted by Alternate Energy Holdings, Inc., the company proposing to build a 1,600 megawatt nuclear energy plant near Hammett.
The Board of Commissioners took oral testimony from both opponents and supporters of the rezone request during the hearing, which lasted just over four hours.
AEHI is requesting the rezoning of 1,280 acres of land from Agricultural use to M2-Heavy Industrial.
During the hearing it was incumbent upon the applicant to prove that the rezone was compatible with the Elmore County Comprehensive Plan, adopted in 2004. Testimony by those who supported the rezone and those that opposed it was limited to the rezone application, but on several occasions presenters on both sides of the issue had to be reminded to keep their comments pertinent to the subject matter.
As is customary with such proceedings, the applicant was given the first opportunity to give testimony.
AEHI's testimony began with a brief summary of company CEO Don Gillispie's credentials by stockholder Bruce Wong. His testimony was quickly interrupted by hearing moderator Jerry Miller because it deviated from the subject of the hearing. Yet Wong prevailed, stating that the information provided the commissioners with important background on who was making application for the rezone.
Gillispie also spoke briefly before turning the microphone over to Mark Pecchenino, a land use planning consultant with Pecchenino and Associates, Inc., from Kuna.
Using a power-point presentation, Pecchenino offered a number of reasons why the rezone complied with the comprehensive plan's land use objectives.
Pecchenino pointed out that the rezone to M2 (heavy industrial) would pave the way for economic growth in both job creation and tax revenue, and that it would encourage other commercial growth and development.
Pecchenino said county commissioners have shown support for energy production citing the approval of two gas-fired energy production facilities, a hydrogen energy production facility, and multiple wind generation facilities.
Pecchenino also pointed out that the rezone does fit with the comp plan in that it complied with the section pertaining to the compatibility of development with existing land usage. He emphasized his point by showing slides of several nuclear facilities coexisting with farming.
He said the rezone fit the description of a light industrial zone as it would be used for a "clean" industry and, therefore, adhered to the objectives outlined in the Planned Unit Development (PUD) section of the county's comprehensive plan.
According to Pecchenino, the rezone would comply with the county's objective to bring diversity to the county that would provide for economic expansion, while maintaining community values. The rezone would pave the way for improvements to the county's infrastructure, schools and fire districts, he indicated.
Following Pecchenino's presentation the floor was opened to those supporting the rezone. More than a dozen individuals, many wearing tags that read "I Support AEHI" testified that the rezone would bring much-needed jobs to Elmore County.
Prior to the start of the hearing, AEHI had accepted resumes and handed out employment applications to over 400 individuals, a company spokesman said. Those turning in resumes or receiving applications where asked to sign a petition showing their support for the rezone. Many also decided to make oral testimony before the commissioners.
Michael Deverney and Trent Shelton, both of Mountain Home, took advantage of the mini-job fair and submitted their resumes to AEHI. Deverney believes the rezone will allow the company to build its nuclear plant, thereby providing jobs for local residents.
"We're not military -- there's not many jobs" in Mountain Home, Deverney said.
Shelton said the current economy makes finding employment difficult, and sees construction of the plant as a means to stay in Mountain Home.
Neither man was concerned about the safety of the nuclear power plant. "I'm pretty sure they're going to keep an eye on it," said Deverney, a 23-year resident of Mountain Home.
Elmore County's unemployment rate for March stood at 6.2 percent, down slightly from the previous month, primarily because the 2009 growing season is getting underway, said Albert Clement of the Idaho Department of Labor, Job Services Office in Mountain Home.
Last year, between 125 and 130 individuals lost their jobs when the potato plant in Glenns Ferry closed its doors. Clement said 70 local individuals who once worked for Micron lost their jobs between 2008 and the beginning of 2009, and future layoffs have been announced by that company.
But not everyone was convinced that the AEHI's claim about employment opportunity is accurate.
Since AEHI is only the plant developer, and would not be operating the facility once it went on-line, some question Gillispie's previous claims about job creation.
In his rebuttal following public testimony, Gillispie noted that employment statistics reported by AEHI were developed by an independent company.
The county comprehensive plan appears to contain contradictions. Under the Planned Unit Development section the document states: "The Planned Unit Development "PUD" designation is a zone specifically designed to allow flexibility in land use, site design and dimensional standards to develop residential, commercial, office and/or light industrial uses not allowed individually within a specific zoning district".
But in the Land Use Objective segment of the document it reads: "Allow heavy industry/manufacturing land uses and waste facilities to locate in Simco Road District only, subject to specific review and Conditional Use Permits".
K.C. Duerig, of King Hill, who sits on the Elmore County Planning and Zoning Commission, and was one of two P&Z commissioners that voted against rejecting the rezone application, gave testimony. Referring to section 12 of the Land Use Objectives segment of the comp plan, Duerig pointed out that there is no specific area, either in the comprehensive plan text or the accompanying land use map that specifically defines Simco Road as a district.
Also giving testimony was Courtney Ireland, who sat on the P&Z Commission during the rezone hearings. She has since stepped down from that post.
Ireland noted Hammett's centralized position in the county makes the site selected by AEHI more suitable and opportune for residents of Elmore County, whereas Simco Road's proximity to Ada County could jeopardize employment opportunities for local citizens.
Ireland also admonished Commission Larry Rose for a previous outburst, when he reprimanded Pecchenino for not staying on-topic. Ireland said it was important for commissioners to know who was asking for the rezone and what it was for. She reminded the commissioners that the rezone is directly related to the proposed construction of a nuclear power plant. She urged the commissioners to "put politics aside" and "look at the viability of the rezone." Ireland also voted against the P&Z's recommendation that the rezone application be denied.
Following testimony by those who support the rezone, one member of the audience testified on the neutral side of the issue. His concerns were whether transmission lines needed to carry power from the plant to the Idaho Power Company grid would interfere with the Birds of Prey area, and rumors that AEHI would sell all the power generated at the plant to other states.
After a brief break, those who opposed the rezone were allowed to give testimony.
Doran Duffin, representing the "Snake River Rats," a group of landowners in the Hammett and Indian Cove area, said the plant would have an irreversible impact on the county, including its infrastructure. He said the tax revenue quotes presented by AEHI need to be studied before the rezone is approved.
He expressed concern that a premature pull-out by the company after construction began would make reverting the property to agricultural use impossible.
Duffin said his group "can't think of any heavy industrial use that will be compatible with agriculture," and the rezone would "change Hammett from a close-knit community to a boom-bust community."
He also suggested that hydrology, geology, and other ecological features made the site unsuitable for heavy industrial use.
"How can we plan for the future if the comprehensive plan is compromised," Duffin asked. "This rezone violates ten objectives of the comprehensive plan."
Water would be a recurring theme during the evening. Several people expressed concern that the rezone would put existing water rights at risk, especially during years of drought.
Under the Land Use Objectives section of the comp plan, county officials are tasked with reviewing "all development proposals in areas that are critical to groundwater recharge and sources to determine impacts, if any, to surface and groundwater quantity and quality."
Yet, although county officials have made that part of the comprehensive plan, two state agencies are already charged with those duties: The Department of Water Resources and the Department of Environmental Quality. Any changes in diversion point or water use classification must be approved by the IDWR after that agency has conducted a public hearing.
Tracy Lauric and Cashia Brown, both of Mountain Home, were part of a handful of people displaying anti-nuclear signs outside the school prior to the hearing.
Lauric does not believe that IDWR has allocated water properly, and does not trust the agency to make appropriate decisions about water for the nuclear plant. "I don't think IDWR has allocated it (water) properly and if history repeats itself, we're in trouble," Lauric said.
Brown is concerned about waste storage and its potential for leakage into the Snake River.
"You commissioners have an opportunity to open a door--a door I believe should be shut," said Diane Hooley. In 2007, Hooley's family farmed a section of the land AEHI has chosen for its project. Although the company claims the land is not prime-agricultural land, Hooley and others disagree.
Bob Bledsoe indicated that the land is capable of producing high-yields of crops if properly managed, and noted that, at various times, it had produced crops of potatoes, beans, sugar beets, alfalfa and wheat.
Others would express concern that the rezone would compromise the farming history of the area, and lifestyles of those who make their living from the land. Others, citing a 1994 study by Cornell University, and reports from the US Department of Agriculture, said the rezone would further reduce available farmland not only in the county, but also in the nation.
Yet, a news release issued by the USDA on Feb. 4, 2009, indicates that the results of a 2007 Census of Agriculture shows that "the number of farms in the United States has grown 4 percent and the operators of those farms have become more diversified in the past five years." According to the census, "nearly 300,000 new farms have begun operation since the last census in 2002." Elmore County farm statistics, obtained from the county extension office, show that farm numbers in the county also increased between 2002 and 2007, from 364 to 381, even though, the average farm size, dropped from 951 acres to 910 acres.
Others testifying at the hearing called for more research on how the rezone would impact the county's economy and environment.
At the close of the hearing, AEHI was given an opportunity to rebut any statements made during the public testimony portion of the meeting. Pecchenino reiterated his previous statements, and Gillispie made a final bid for the rezone request.
The commissioners took no action on the rezone application last week and will likely begin deliberations in about three weeks. The board of county commissioners meets every Monday.