What happens in the courthouse...

Unless explicitly noted otherwise, this blog represents my own opinions, not those of any organization (like the Kittitas County Democratic Party) that I might be involved with.

Feel free to join the conversation: welcome aboard!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Maybe now we can be happy about what we have

I have to admit that I jumped to unfair conclusions when I saw Thursday's Daily Record story, "Stop the Leak" and its followup story on Saturday.

My initial reaction was that the articles would be about an attempt to resurrect the failed plan for "regional retail" at the west interchange, but instead the articles contained fairly straightforward information and reasonable outlooks from almost everyone who was quoted. Even as it was being proposed it was obvious to many of us that the project would go nowhere, and it looks like most of those interviewed have finally realized this, too. It's unfortunate so much money, time, and goodwill were wasted in getting to this point, but it is still nice to see a little realism.

The articles did give me an excuse to do a little research on retail leakage studies, which are a fairly common tool in economic development (click here for a Google search on retail leakage). These studies appear to be undertaken for a few different reasons by a variety of different entities. Some reasons for analyzing retail leakage include:
  • Developing strategies for increasing sales tax revenue. In our case, very high levels of fuel sales to passing motorists partly help offset low levels of local new car sales.
  • Understanding how well the local shopping needs of residents are being met. For example, residents of the town of Kittitas must go elsewhere to buy just about everything except basic needs like groceries and hardware.
  • Uncovering non-obvious business opportunities.
  • Gathering information to use in making the case to prospective retailers to move to a location.
  • Building support for large retail developments. The obvious example here would be the failed development at the West Interchange in Ellensburg.
It is important to note that leakage doesn't necessarily translate to opportunity. One study I found (from Wayne County, Indiana) put it this way:
Retail leakage means that residents are spending more for products than local businesses capture. Retail sales leakage suggests that there is unmet demand in the trade area and that the community can support additional store space for that type of business.

However, retail leakage does not necessarily translate into opportunity. For example, there could be a strong competitor in a neighboring community that dominates the market for that type of product or store.

I also found the handy table shown above. This came from a leakage study done by Ohio State University for Medina, OH (important: data in the table are for Medina, not Ellensburg). Clicking on it makes it a little more readable, or you can see the original study.

Notice the grouping of the different shopping types, and notice that we actually have many of the various shopping types. Kittitas County probably has one or two examples of almost every type of shopping on the list, and Ellensburg, where I live, has all except a very few (I can't think of any dedicated "hobby toy & game shops," for example, and even Medina doesn't have any mobile home dealers).

As I read and write and think about retail leakage, I also think of the attitude some people have about shopping in Ellensburg -- in some cases it's downright hostile. I'm not saying you can find everything you might want in Ellensburg, but some people have it stuck in their heads that Ellensburg doesn't have anything they want, and a few, including at least one particularly obnoxious commenter on the Daily Record's website, seem to take pride in shopping elsewhere.

It occurs to me that these people may have been led to believe Ellensburg's shopping sucks by the way previous leakage studies have been spun by those who stood to make money from development at the west interchange. The Daily Record seems to be working to undo this damage (I refer to their "buy local" campaign, not the leakage articles), and I hope the Chamber of Commerce will, too.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

County offers literal bail-out?

Another story in today's Daily Record about the Upper County well moratorium, which the county precipitated in the summer of 2009 by insisting on supporting developers who were abusing the exempt well option1.

I'm afraid not much has changed since 2009: In published statements the county seems willfully unaware that the state, three counties, and the Yakama Nation have important interests when it comes to Yakima River flows. The county continues to equate real estate development with economic development (Paul Jewell is quoted in the article: "...this is costing the community jobs and is costing us lost opportunities for much-needed economic development.")

My favorite part of the article is the "centerpiece of the county's ideas," a domestic water reserve program. The idea is that the county will buy water rights in order to allow developers to offset new wells -- an almost literal bail-out of the developers who got us into this mess in the first place. Why should the county do this?

The county needs to do a better job of explaining the economic benefit of the Upper County development proposals. It needs to a much better job of reassuring us that county commissioners are not simply doing the bidding of their very large campaign contributors. And they need to get a clue about what real economic development means.


1For more on the well moratorium, see my Well Moratorium Summary.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

CWU budget: why no official concern from county?

One of the things I talked about this summer and fall was CWU's impact on our county economy, and how surprised I have been at the lack of concern shown by county commissioners about CWU's budget cuts. Let's look at the three regional comprehensive universities in Washington.

WWU (2367 employees*) is the largest employer in Whatcom county, but the county has a remarkably diverse economy. WWU employs about 1.2% of the population of Whatcom county.

EWU (1948 employees*) doesn't even make the list of top ten employers in Spokane county, which has a population about ten (10!) times larger than Kittitas county's. EWU employs about 0.4% of the population of Spokane county.

CWU (1815 employees*) is the largest employer by far in Kittitas county. (The Ellensburg School District is #2 with fewer than 400 employees.) CWU employs a whopping 4.5% of people in Kittitas county!

It's clear that budget cuts at WWU and EWU, as upsetting as they might be to their on-campus communities, will have little real effect on the economies of their counties. But budget cuts at CWU will have a big effect on our county's economy.

So I'm left wondering: why have our county commissioners not expressed concern about CWU budget cuts? It seems to me they should be actively raising this issue with both our legislators and in testimony to relevant committees in Olympia. (As I mentioned in an earlier post, building more buildings doesn't count, for many reasons including the fact that adding buildings increases operating expenses and doesn't help the county economy once they're completed.)

*2009 employee numbers, available from the state Office of Financial Management.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Back in town

I spent almost all of last week out of town at various conferences: the Bioenergy Research Symposium and the the Future Energy Expo and State Energy Summit, both in Seattle, and the Tilth Producers Conference in Port Townsend.

A number of counties were represented at the energy conferences in various ways. I regret not taking the time to make a list. Of course, west-side counties like King and Pierce are leaders, but there are important things going on in Central/Eastern Washington counties, too. Off the top of my head, some east-of-the-Cascades counties where there's a lot of county government leadership in renewable energy as a source of economic development are Lincoln, Spokane, and Chelan counties.

There were at least four CWU people at the energy conferences, which was good to see. One Kittitas County government person, Kirk Holmes, gave a presentation on renewable energy project siting (and did a good job), but had to leave immediately after.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

On winning and losing, and loyal opposition

To the Editor:

It's true: I expected to win, but then, why would I have run if I thought I was going to lose?

The real news is this: my opponent expected me to win, too1. Why? Because during the campaign he heard me and a variety of authors of letters to the editor explain, clearly and frankly and not in a negative way, a number of hard truths.

We discussed ways the current Board of County Commissioners has let the citizens of Kittitas County down2. We explained how the economy now and going forward is far different than the one in the recent past, and how this will require new thinking3. We pointed out that CWU has been ignored as an important part of our county economy and as a key part of our path to a better economy4. We noted that many citizens don’t feel county government has been listening to them.5 We emphasized that we need to move away from our current development-based boom-and-bust economy.6

All of this is true, and wishing or pretending otherwise won’t make it not true.

The major issues of the campaign will follow the new Board of County Commissioners as they begin their work after the first of the year, and their performance in dealing with the issues will be used to judge them in the next election7. The Commissioners deserve as much help as we can give them in getting Kittitas County back on track. I’ll be doing my part by, among other things, continuing to write my blog about county issues, http://whathappensinthecourthouse.blogspot.com , where readers can find a more interactive version of this letter.

Finally, I am grateful for and humbled by the help8, ideas8, time8, and money9 contributed by so many to my campaign.

Steve Verhey

1As we waited for the vote tally to be announced, Obie was standing about six feet away from me, talking about how he had been too busy to do much campaigning, and generally making excuses. He was genuinely surprised when the result was announced.
2See Well Moratorium Summary, for example.
3The housing development boom was funded by toxic mortgages that contributed to the banking crisis and required a bailout by the Bush Administration. That kind of money will (hopefully) never be available again.
4Our local politicians' lack of response to CWU budget cuts was adequately addressed during the campaign, and doesn't need to be repeated here.
5I heard much more of this in meetings with voters. Don't forget that "listening" and "hearing" are two different things -- citizens actually don't feel heard.
6There is an opportunity cost to paying as much attention to development as the county has done. The county was blindsided by the first wind farm application because they had been distracted, for example, by development-related issues.
7Voters should not accept experience without real accomplishments.
8Scores of people helped in one way or another.
9Obie raised over $11,000 from 24 donors, including his party; I raised about $7800 from at least 40 donors (my donors aren't as easy to view, because I filed by mail instead of electronically; to see them, this link might work. $5500 of Obie's money was from the Republican Party, and about $3700 came from the real estate development industry (my favorites were $500 checks from Northland Investment Inc and from Northland Investment LLC).

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Election results

It doesn't look like the results will change much from the current situation: Obie has 6608 votes and I have 4041 votes: a landslide for Obie. I must say, I'm surprised. Indeed, Obie seemed more surprised than I was when the results were announced at the Courthouse. There is very little chance the basic outcome will change, and if I were Obie I'd be very humbled.

We ran the best campaign possible under the circumstances. Not a perfect campaign -- this result isn't a reason to quit trying!-- but a darn good campaign. I am proud of the campaign we ran, and I thank you for all your work on it. The beauty of a result like this is that there's no woulda-coulda-shoulda regarding our work. We were up against something irrational. We did our best, and that's a lot.

Thanks everyone, for your work, your contacts with voters, your letters, your donations, and your votes. We can't let this stop us, and we won't.

Thanks to all citizens who voted everywhere!


Friday, October 22, 2010

League of Women Voters Forum

Here's the text of my opening remarks at the LWV Forum last night.

The last time my opponent and I were together in this room, at last week’s Chamber of Commerce forum, I asked him to provide details of the economic plan he’s been talking about through the entire campaign. He hasn’t, yet, and in fact it’s hard to tell what his position is on just about anything.

Tonight I’d like to focus on some of my ideas and plans, and the most important issue is jobs. How do we get more jobs? How do we keep the jobs? Where will the jobs come from? In 2007 we had the lowest unemployment in the history of the county, because of the construction boom. Now we have the highest unemployment in many years because of the construction bust. According to the state economist, it could take 20 years for the construction industry to recover.

It is absolutely essential that we move past the boom-and-bust economy that’s gotten us into this mess. A return to 2007 is simply not possible: the housing bubble has burst, and not only did our leaders get suckered by it, they helped it happen here. This has to change.

Farming, CWU, tourism, and renewable energy are our largest assets, yet they have all been getting less attention than they should as the county has struggled with the mess it has created. Moving on from the latest bust means paying attention to helping farmers get their products to markets faster and cheaper, capitalizing on CWU’s presence, protecting and improving our tourist attractions, and making sure we keep as much of the benefits of renewable energy as possible right here in Kittitas County. At the same time, we need to do a far better job of motivating economic progress in all parts of the county.

Getting farm products to market cheaper and faster means being fully involved with the state’s 20-year transportation plan, which is being finalized and implemented right now. Capitalizing on CWU’s presence means actively working with CWU administration and faculty, not ignoring them as we have in the past, and supporting CWU in the legislature. Protecting and improving our tourist attractions means preserving some of the best rural and forest land in the entire state, and using county physical assets to attract tourists. Insuring that as much of the benefits of renewable energy projects remain here means negotiating smarter and tougher with renewable energy developers. I can talk more specifically about each of these topics as we find the time this evening.

Finally, motivating economic progress means accepting that we live in a totally different economy than we did just a few years ago. Unfortunately, my opponent and his supporters seem to think we can turn back the clock. We can’t.

None of this will be simple or easy.

But in spite of the county’s economic and employment crisis my opponent’s party has endorsed someone who has serious problems with competence, judgment, professionalism, and integrity. Over a week ago I posted documentation of these problems to my blog, available through steveverhey.com, and invited Obie to correct the record. He hasn’t.

In raising these issues, of course, I have naturally invited my opponent to raise similar concerns about me, if he can – after all, nobody’s perfect.

On my blog, in interviews, in chats with voters, in these candidate forums, and in meetings with voters that I organized myself – and invited my opponent to – I have been as clear as I could be about where I stand on the issues that face the county, and why. On the other hand, my opponent seems to have a hard time actually answering questions, so it’s hard to tell where he stands on just about anything. I hope we can hear about his economic plan and get some clear answers this evening.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Supreme Court oral arguments: KC and C. WA Homebuilders vs. E. WA Growth Managment Board

This case was over ten years in the making. A decision isn't expected for several months; meanwhile, it's interesting to watch this.

Putting the O in Obie: 0 for 4 at voter Q&A

Another surprising turnout about the Damman School voter Q&A session, the fourth in the series of meetings I organized to give both Obie and me a chance to meet voters outside Ellensburg.

And another no-show from Obie. He had more than three weeks' notice for this event, yet still could not manage to schedule an appearance.

I learned a huge amount from voters at each of these events, and Obie could have, too. Thanks to everyone who came!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Damman Q&A, fact-checking

From: verheys@hotmail.com
To: obie@writeme.com
Subject: Damman voter Q&A, fact-checking
Date: Wed, 13 Oct 2010 10:57:07 -0700


As you know, I have scheduled the fourth independent Q&A with voter for 6 pm Sunday, October 17 at Damman School. I hope you can make it to this one.

Also, I have posted an annotated version of my opening remarks from last night on my blog. I am perfectly willing to update it if anything I have said is untrue or unfair.

Best wishes,


Verhey for Kittitas County Commissioner
read the blog: whathappensinthecourthouse.blogspot.com
See and like the Facebook page

Chamber of Commerce Forum

Last night's Ellensburg Chamber of Commerce candidates' forum was the first official event of the campaign season, and ballots were mailed yesterday. Unfortunately, the event was not televised and recorded for replay as planned, so I'll share my opening statement here.

Besides, it requires some documentation, because it was rather blunt -- without, I hope, being negative. Here it is:

I’d like to thank the organizers for this opportunity to speak directly to the Ellensburg Chamber of Commerce. One elephant in the room tonight is that both of the people listed as Obie O’Brien’s campaign committee are past Executive Directors of the Ellensburg Chamber. Of course they are both acting as private citizens, and of course they made their commitment some time ago; I understand that once the brochures have been printed, it’s hard to change.

Yet, with the county’s economy and employment in crisis, it’s hard to escape the fact that the opponent chosen for me by Jim1, Bob2, and their party3 has problems with competence4, judgment5, professionalism6, and integrity7. He has no real business or higher education experience, only experience as an employee8,9. He has shown no interest in the part of the county outside Ellensburg10. He has no experience with farming except as a part-time irrigator, long ago11. He seems hand-picked to continue the policies that got us into this situation12.

My opponent is running on his government experience, but not his achievements13. One phrase he has repeated in earlier appearances with me is that we need to “make a plan, then follow it.” What is his plan? Tonight I hope we hear details of his plan14; I’ll try to share as many as possible of mine15.

1Jim Armstrong, current member of the Ellensburg Chamber Board and past Executive Director; current Director of CWU Alumni Relations
2Bob Hansen, current Executive Director of the Ellensburg Chamber of Commerce (the Chamber is in the process of merging with the Economic Development Group). Mr. Hansen also represents the Lamb Family Property at Ellensburg's west I-90 interchange, a development made possible by Obie's actions on the Ellensburg City Council.
3The Kittitas County Republican Party's platform is here.
4One example of a competence problem is Obie's role as President of the Board of HopeSource. Given that his area of expertise is city government, "Upper County Housing Plan Hits Snag" was a surprising development.
5One example is Obie's statement, during a City Council meeting, that it might be better "just to bulldoze" the Ellensburg train station, rather than protect it by purchasing it.
6During the 2007 election campaign, Obie, then Mayor of Ellensburg, endorsed candidates for City Council in a letter to the editor -- writing in his official capacity, not as a private citizen. I remember being stunned by this; all of the candidates he endorsed were defeated.
7The action listed in the previous footnote was serious enough to be listed here, too.
8Obie's business experience is limited to his work with a cable company in Yakima. In past candidates' forums he has also mentioned that his wife started a business.
9Obie's current job is in media services at CWU. In a quick search of CWU's website I was not able to find a relevant page to link to. See "Welcome Back, Central Students" for some information about my activities at CWU.
10For example, I have organized four outside-of-Ellensburg meetings with voters, and invited Obie. Of the three that have been held so far, he has attended none.
11Obie spoke of this work, which doesn't seem to have been a paying job, at candidates' forums during the primary campaign.
12Obie announced his candidacy very early in the campaign season; his list of donors includes donors who were also very active in the 2006 campaign for this position.
13Two things I can recall Obie citing as accomplishments are the bicycle helmet requirement (which doesn't seem to be enforced, making it bad legislation) and the West Interchange/Lamb Property development (everyone who voted with him was defeated in the election held the week after the City Council vote, and everyone who voted against the measure was re-elected; Obie was not up for re-election that year).
14When someone stresses both their experience and the importance of having a plan, it seems reasonable for voters to expect to see a plan.
15I'll write about my plan in another post very soon.

Some of these items have been on the About Obie page of this blog for months, along with a request for correction if appropriate. I will update this page if any of my statements are unfair or untrue.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Encounters in the County update

This week's three Q&A sessions with voters, in Easton, at the Swauk-Teanaway Grange, and in Kittitas, were really rewarding. Unfortunately, Obie chose not to attend any of them.

I don't know why he didn't/wasn't able to come, because I gave him as much notice as possible, first of what I was planning, then of the full schedule -- so scheduling couldn't be the problem, at least not for all three.

Here's what he missed. He missed good turnouts at Easton and the Grange, and a surprising turnout in Kittitas. He missed citizens who were appreciative that someone made the effort to hear about their concerns and to at least try to answer their questions. Almost all of the citizens were new to me, and there was a wide range of points of view and interests. And, frankly, he missed hearing about a lot of frustration with county government.

The candidate forums organized by the Chamber of Commerce and the League of Women Voters are great, as far as they go. But because candidates from all races are there, and because there is so little time allowed for responses to questions, the chance to really address issues is very limited. That's why I'm organizing separate sessions just for Obie and me. Obie has one more chance to meet citizens and answer their questions directly, at 6 pm at the Damman School on Sunday, October 17. I'll send him another invitation this week, but I thought all you-all would appreciate an update.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Encounters in the County

From: verheys@hotmail.com
To: obie@writeme.com
Subject: RE: Meet the Candidates
Date: Fri, 1 Oct 2010 20:01:26 -0700

Whoops, forgot the attachment.


From: verheys@hotmail.com
To: obie@writeme.com
Subject: Meet the Candidates
Date: Fri, 1 Oct 2010 20:00:25 -0700


This ad will start running tomorrow in the Daily Record. I hope you can join me at these -- I will have a data projector available if you'd like to show some PowerPoint slides.

Best wishes,


Verhey for Kittitas County Commissioner
read the blog: whathappensinthecourthouse.blogspot.com
See and like the Facebook page

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Wind energy in Italy

An interesting article in the New York Times about how over 800 Italian towns produce more energy than they use. The one in the picture, Tocco da Casauria, uses the money it makes to reduce taxes and fees. Keep in mind, though, that electricity in Italy is much more expensive than it is here, so the profit margin is larger for wind power there than it is here. Still, it's a nice example.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Voter Q&A dates and times

Sent by e-mail this evening:


I have scheduled four independent Q&A sessions with voters, to complement the more official ones organized by the Chamber of Commerce and others. As I said in my earlier e-mail, it would be very helpful to voters if we could both appear together, and I have tried to arrange the sessions with your schedule in mind. I thought our meeting with the Kittitas County Conservation Coalition yesterday was very well organized, and I suggest a similar format for these events.

Here is what I have scheduled:
Tuesday, October 5, Easton Community Church, 7 pm
Wednesday, October 6, Swauk-Teanaway Grange, 7 pm
Thursday, October 7, Kittitas Community Center, 7 pm
Sunday, October 17, Damman School, 6 pm

Please let me know at your earliest convenience which of these you will be able to attend -- I hope you can come to all of them. I will begin advertising tomorrow or the next day via newspapers, community calendars, flyers, my blog, and any other approach I can think of.

Best wishes,


Friday, September 24, 2010

Why toxic partisanship isn't just bad, it's really, really bad

It seems that to be a member of a political party these days is to be required to spend too much time on blaming the other side, and far too little time actually solving problems. The blame game also makes solving the problems much more difficult, so the whole thing spirals out of control. We're even seeing this in our own local community.

I came across this video this morning, and I think it helps illustrate the reason that toxic partisanship isn't just bad, it's really, really bad. The basic message is that good ideas happen when different people, sometimes very different people, are able to communicate. What we have now, and what the Manweller/Huber fracas is a symptom of, is something like the opposite of what we need. I think the only way out is to at least take a break from political parties, and to focus of actually solving problems. This will be easiest, and most effective, if we start locally.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

On uncertainty and water modeling

As I wrote earlier, it looks like any model that is developed to help understand Upper County groundwater is likely to come with a fair amount uncertainty, in spite of the USGS's powerful computer model. This is because Upper County geology is complicated, and because rainfall amounts change rapidly with elevation and distance, not to mention the unknown but real future effects of global climate change.

I was trained as a scientist, and I taught science in college for many years. The best definition I ever came up with for science (I was actually rather proud of this) is that science is the management of uncertainty.

Scientists know that it is impossible to eliminate uncertainty, which is why they start to squirm when people start talking about "proving" anything. To a scientist, there's no such thing. Mathematicians use the word "proof" and mean it, but even in that field there can be room for judgment and reasonable disagreement.

Uncertainty can be reduced and managed, but never completely eliminated. Reducing and managing uncertainty can be difficult and expensive, and eventually one has to decide that enough time, effort, and money have been spent, and just accept the uncertainty.

Even so, when extended to the Upper County, the model will be useful. What computer models are really useful for is testing different management scenarios, which then can be used, carefully, for taking action and setting policy. It is uncertain when this will become possible, but it should be within months or a very small number of years.

Yakima Basin Groundwater Study

Last night I went to the USGS presentation on their Yakima basin groundwater study -- one of the most important water-related events I've been to.

The USGS has built what may be one of the most ambitious models the agency has attempted. The computer model (computer models are like giant spreadsheets, with equations that attempt to produce a mathematical description of something, in this case ground- and surface water flows) divides the Yakima River basin into thousands of 1000-foot squares. Beneath the surface grid, the model considers up to 48 underground layers, from the sediment near the surface to the bottom of the Grande Ronde basalt flows.

Like a complicated machine, the model has lots of what amount to switches and valves that can be adjusted. The first step is to try to adjust the switches and valves so that the model spits out an accurate description of what is happening now, and what has happened in the past. Using inputs of precipitation, water management from the reservoirs, weather data, irrigation and other pumpage, crop types, and so on, the model really does produce an accurate -- but not perfect, because that's not possible -- picture of how water behaves.

So far, the model works best on the part of the Yakima River basin downstream from Umptanum and the canyon. It turns out that the upper Kittitas County area is much more complicated that the rest of the basin. This mostly is because the geology is different and more complicated, and because precipitation levels change rapidly over distance. The current model's main water input is based on releases from the reservoirs, but the Upper County's groundwater depends mostly on rain- and snowfall.

The USGS team and their model will be focusing on the Upper County next. Because of the complexity of that area, it seems to me that the model will be more uncertain in there, which means we'll need to understand the role of uncertainty in science. I'll write more about that, probably later today. I've mentioned it before, in my post about making your case.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Voter Q&A sessions planned

From: verheys@hotmail.com
To: obie@writeme.com
CC: bowens@kvnews.com; mjohnston@kvnews.com; tribune@nkctribune.com
Subject: Voter Q&A sessions
Date: Wed, 22 Sep 2010 14:30:53 -0700


I am working on setting up meetings with voters in Easton, Roslyn, Cle Elum, Thorp, Ellensburg, and Kittitas, and at the Swauk-Teanaway Grange and at CWU. It probably won't be possible to meet in every place, but I'm sure I can get several lined up by the end of this week.

I think it would be best for voters if both of us could be present, and so I am writing to invite you to join me at any or all of the sessions. I'm happy to negotiate details of the appearances, but my preference would be to be flexible and allow the audience to help guide us. Details of dates are mostly out of my control, but I am generally aiming for 7 -8:30 or so in the evening. I'll send you the complete list of dates and places as soon as I can, but I wanted to alert you now.

Some of the venues charge a small fee, and it looks like it will be necessary to get event insurance for at least one meeting location; I trust you will be willing to split the costs of any meetings you can attend.

I'll also post this message on my blog.

Best regards,


Verhey for Kittitas County Commissioner
read the blog: whathappensinthecourthouse.blogspot.com
See and like the Facebook page

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Local Leaders Exchange Punches

In this afternoon's Daily Record, a story about a physical fight between the chair of the local Republican party and the husband of a former Democratic county official who is no longer involved in partisan politics. The D was angry because of things the R had said about his wife on the R's talk radio program on KXLE.

I happened to listen to the part of the radio program that started the whole fracas, and compared to the other things one hears on AM talk radio, it wasn't particularly out of line. When someone says such things about a politician who lives in another state, it might be considered entertainment.

But when such things are said about a member of the local community, it is definitely out of line. We live in a community, and communities have mores -- unspoken rules about what is and isn't OK. Recent party politics have degraded our community values in a very important and unfortunate way. That's one of many reasons I'm running as an Independent.

Both people, as a friend of mine says, should accept 75% of the blame for the fight itself, but I'm afraid I think the radio host is who is responsible for damaging our community values.

Monday, September 20, 2010

TSR Development Agreement Meeting

Tomorrow's meeting (at 2:00 in the Board of County Commissioners' hearing room) is about the official agreement between the county and TSR on how construction of the project will be done. One issue that doesn't seem to have been formally resolved yet is how trees removed by the project will be replaced. During the run-up to approval by the Board of Adjustment, TSR said they'd replace trees at a 3:1 ratio, but this only applied to trees that were larger than a certain size. This is important because the site is much better for growing trees than growing solar panels.

Other claims were made by TSR, including how many jobs would be created during construction and on a permanent basis, and where the final assembly of the solar panels will take place. For the record, TSR predicts "as many as 225 family-wage jobs" during construction, and "at least 35" permanent jobs. Disconnects between pre-approval claims and post-approval reality are a common problem with projects like this one, so it will be interesting to see how this one develops.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Welcome back, Central students!

I was a professor in the biology department from 1999 to 2006, when I left to start a biodiesel company with some partners -- I'll come back to this later.

While I was at Central, I worked on a number of projects. One was even featured on the cover of Central Today, the alumni magazine. That project led to the formation of a multi-million dollar business; the student shown in the picture along with me (before my haircut) went on to medical school.

I also did research on biology education, and published a paper on the benefits of teaching creationism and evolution in college biology classes, which helps students understand evolution better. That work was a little controversial, to say the least. Here's a news item in Science magazine about the paper, which was published in the journal Bioscience. I have additional data, which I really should publish, that make an even stronger case.

Now I'm running for county commissioner. Since CWU is one of the most important features of Kittitas County, it only makes sense to elect at least one commissioner with a very good understanding of how it works.

Thursday, September 16, 2010


Took the evening off from doorbelling to go to my second meeting of Save Our Water Rights. MyAroundTown.com was there, and will most likely be posting a report.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

TSR Environmental Issues

I started this several post weeks ago, just after the Board of Adjustment meeting that led to the approval of the conditional use permit (CUP) for Teanaway Solar Reserve, but got distracted and didn't finish it until now.

I have been to a number of Board of Adjustment hearings and EFSEC hearings for wind farms, but I've never paid as much attention as I did at the BoA meeting on the Teanaway Solar Reserve project. I don't know any of the citizens who make up the BoA; I mean no disrespect here as I share some of my impressions of the meeting.

The meeting had two parts: first, the Board rejected an appeal of the County's mitigated determination of nonsignificance (MDNS), then they listened to presentations and testimony for and against the TSR project and voted to permit the project.

The MDNS appeal was interesting because it really seemed to me that the people bringing the appeal (the appellants) had a good case. They raised several points, but the ones that resonated most with me had to do with biological surveys looking for endangered or threatened species. These surveys were done over a single 5-day period in late June and early July last summer. I think it's pretty obvious that that's completely inadequate, but apparently it does meet the letter of the law. That doesn't make it OK, and one way to see that better surveys get done would be for the BoA to insist on them. Five days isn't enough time to wait for rare animals to wander by, and it's definitely not enough time to find plants. (Depending on the species, some plants start flowering when the snow melts, and others continue all summer into late fall. Because identifying plants generally depends on looking at their flowers, obviously it would be a good idea to check the site several times during the season. The biological survey for one of the wind farms missed a state threatened plant because the survey was done after the plant had flowered and died.)

One thing I think the appellants got wrong had to do with consideration of alternate sites -- they seemed to be focusing on alternate sites in Kittitas County, when the real question was whether the project would make sense anywhere in Washington.

The interesting thing is, I think the TSR people were prepared to lose the appeal. Their big-city attorney was definitely pounding the table, not the law or the facts, with sarcastic and trivial questions aimed at embarrassing the appellants. But instead the BoA voted 5-0 in TSR's favor.

I don't think the BoA realizes that they have the ability (and the responsibility, really) to insist that things like biological surveys be done not just technically correctly, but diligently. The BoA seemed entirely concerned that the application was technically correct, even though what we got was not good science, legal or not.

Another thing that struck me was that TSR used a WA Department of Fish and Wildlife document that provided guidelines for wind power projects. Apparently a similar document doesn't exist for solar projects. Which means WDFW hasn't had a chance to think about large solar projects in this state. And TSR is billed as the largest solar project in the country. It doesn't make sense not to do a full environmental impact statement, which is all the appellants were asking for.

This is all water under the bridge, of course, since the environmental appeal was denied and then the CUP approved. Now there's a new appeal, addressing the use of a parcel of land needed to connect the project to the transmission lines than run nearby.

Because a number of transmission lines run east-west through our county, various kinds of electricity generation projects will continue to be proposed for as long as there are incentives. I'm in the renewable energy industry, and I like renewable energy, but we don't need to approve every single project that comes along, and we can drive a hard bargain for the ones we do approve.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

About making your case

This is the third in a series of posts inspired by my visit to a meeting of Save Our Water Rights (SOWR) this past week. While I was there, I tried to help a tiny bit with their organization process, and these posts are a way for me to try to help both SOWR and other groups who want to petition for redress of grievances (here's a list of the 5 First Amendment Freedoms, including the right to petition).

Our system of government depends not just on our having these rights, but on our actually using them.

But just yelling at one another isn't what the Framers had in mind. For example, about a year ago the country was caught up in the debate over health care reform. The summer congressional recess had been marked by angry town hall meetings, so extreme that some people worried that violence might spill into the streets.

I got together a group of citizens to work on organizing a series of intentionally civil, nonpartisan town hall meetings for Ellensburg and Kittitas County. There was no hope of getting a public official to come to the meetings, and it was even pretty hard to find speakers. I finally found a brave retired doctor to speak at the first one, had a panel discussion for the second one, and invited Jimmie Applegate, a leader in the Republican Party, to speak at the last one. I handed out a card (front and back shown above, click to enlarge) to help people frame their statements as usefully as possible. The meetings all went well, and they were good practice for everyone. Here's the Daily Record's story about the first meeting.

What follows is some of what I have learned from the health care town halls and other experiences.

1. When you ask someone to listen to you, especially in an official setting like a public hearing, you're asking them to give you something very precious: their time. If you want to have the best chance of helping them see things your way, you'd better respect their time.

2. You respect everyone's time when you deliver the best statement you can. Just as we have rules for driving, games, spelling, and even war, we have rules for arguing. Some of these are covered by the guidelines shown in the inset above.

3. You have the best chance of having your argument be heard if you follow the rules. There are extensive lists of fallacious arguments to avoid; here's my favorite. One important form of argument to avoid is needling, which means saying things simply to make your opponent angry. It weakens your argument and wastes time, and worse yet, it can give you the illusion that you're winning, which is another reason to avoid it. Knowing how to withstand the effects of needling is also a good idea.

4. Not following the rules can be fun, and even tactically useful -- unfortunately this approach is used too often in politics by all sides -- but if you're serious about trying to fix real problems, your best bet is to stick to the rules. With all the problems we have to solve, we really don't have time to mess around.

5. Never, ever, suggest, mention, or threaten violence, not even as a joke.

6. Be critical of your own arguments and thinking. Play devil's advocate to your own ideas, and test them on other people who can try to poke holes in them. As you find weaknesses in your arguments, fix them. Be open to the possibility that you're wrong.

7. Use facts, and expect others to use facts. Don't cherry-pick information.

8. Try to stick to what's relevant, especially at public hearings: the officials you're talking to have specific things they are looking for. For examples, see my posts on conditional use considerations.

Friday, September 10, 2010

About running meetings

This is the second of three posts aimed at helping groups like Save Our Water Rights (see earlier posts) make the best case they can for their issues. Our system of government works best when everyone is able to do this. As in life, if we do our best we either get what we want or else we can at least know that we did our best if we don't get what we want.

As with the earlier post, about organizing meetings, I'm not referring to anything specific about SOWR's meeting last night, but just talking generally about what I have found to work in the many meetings I have organized and run. Running meetings can be hard, and takes practice. Some people seem to be better at it than others.

There are lots of ways to run meetings and to make decisions. What I have in mind here is a situation like SOWR's, where a group is forming, choosing goals, and planning activities. It's important to build a sense of teamwork and cohesiveness, especially if members of the group don't know each other. These comments are meant for informal, citizen/volunteer-type groups, obviously, not official/government meetings, although there is some overlap.

1. It's best to have a written agenda, with enough copies for everyone. Ideally, the agenda will have been sent out ahead of time.

2. If the group is small enough, everyone can sit around a table; slightly larger groups should sit in a circle. Make sure everyone can hear and see one another. Pass around a sign-up sheet to collect contact information.

3. If the group is not too large, go around the table or the circle and have everyone introduce themselves. The leader might make notes during this process, so s/he can call on people by name during the meeting.

4. Usually, making decisions by consensus is best, at least at first. This means a decision gets discussed and tweaked until everyone can agree with it. Everyone should have a chance to comment, and anyone who has concerns should be listened to respectfully and the concerns dealt with. Watch out for some of the problems with consensus, all of which I have seen. It takes practice to deal with or avoid the problems.

5. The group should have only one discussion at a time, not several conversations at once.

6. The leader of the discussion should keep the group on topic and try to make sure everyone is able to participate. Keep in mind that the goal is to get something done, so make a list of action items for each agenda item, as appropriate. Make a note of who will do each thing, and put these details into the notes from the meeting.

7. Someone should take notes during the meeting. I usually try to do this by writing on the agenda, or another member of the group can act as secretary. As soon as possible after the meeting, preferably the same day, the notes should be typed up and sent to everyone.

At Farmers' Market tomorrow

Unless Mom needs help at the farm tomorrow, I'll be at the Farmers' Market in Ellensburg tomorrow with Elberta peaches. These are a different variety than the Delp Hales I had last time. They're also a good canning/freezing/eating peach, and they tend to ripen better off the tree and store better fresh than the Delps do.

Some of my positions

Here are some of the issues that have come up in conversations with voters, and some of my thinking about them, along with brief comments about my opponent's views. (If any of my comments about my opponent's views are incorrect, I will of course correct them as necessary; my contact information is on the left side of this page.).

Well moratorium: I have written quite a bit about this, and I may be making some adjustments as I get to know SOWR better, but briefly, I think the County Commissioners failed the county by allowing the moratorium to happen. (During the Daily Record candidate forum, my opponent said he would not have behaved any differently than the current commissioners did. As recently as this past weekend, video of the DR forum was on their web page, but seems to have been taken down.)

Teanaway solar reserve: I have written quite a bit about this one too, mostly in late July and early August: I was against TSR before I was for it. I was against it because the project disregards the intent of the government incentives that make it possible. The intent of the incentives is to encourage renewable energy projects in the most productive locations; the TSR site is not a good location, so it is a misuse of the taxpayer money that makes it possible. Now that it has been approved (pending the results of the appeal) I am for it because it will bring at least some jobs to the Upper County. I do have doubts about the developer's claims about job creation, but this is a separate problem.

Wind power: I am basically in favor of wind power. While Kittitas County is not a very good place for utility-scale solar energy, it is an excellent place for wind energy. In addition to our famous wind, we have several important east-west power lines running through our county, which means this issue will be with us for a long time. We already have a wind farm zone overlay that encourages wind farm development on the east end of the county. We should fine-tune the location of that overlay. (During the Daily Record candidate forum, my opponent was unaware that we have a wind farm overlay, which really surprised me; he seemed generally poorly informed about energy issues.)

County economy: we need to move away from the boom-and-bust economy that we've been dealing with since the timber and coal days. Construction was the most recent boom, and is the cause of the most recent bust, and economists agree that it will take a long time for this industry to recover. Unfortunately, it will be a very long time until we see anything like 2007, when the county had the lowest unemployment rate in history. We need to work to diversify our economy and take better advantage of assets like CWU. We need to be working now to fix our economy ourselves, not waiting for the country's economy to recover. (My opponent seems to believe that a return to 2007 is just a matter of not very much time, and that while we wait we should be getting ready for its return.)

CWU: Central Washington University is the largest employer in the county, and over the last three years Central has seen its budget cut by almost one-third. This is a huge problem for our county, but the county has been distracted by other things. County Commissioners should be the chief lobbyists for the county in Olympia, but to do that most effectively the county needs to have good relations with Olympia. As a former CWU faculty member, I understand how the university works, and can address this issue with a great deal of credibility. (My opponent, like the current Board of County Commissioners, doesn't seem to be paying attention to this problem.)

About organizing meetings

Without mentioning anything specific about last night's SOWR meeting (see previous post), to avoid giving away any tactical or strategic details, here are some thoughts about organizing meetings for maximum attendance and effectiveness. I'm no expert, but I have done a lot of meeting organizing, and here is some of what I have learned.

1. Choose a day, time, and place that's convenient for as many interested people as possible. Try to have meetings at consistent intervals (weekly, every other week, second Tuesday, etc.) so people can get used to going to meetings regularly. If you have lots of people with complicated schedules, there are online tools like Doodle.com that can help with scheduling and other decision making.

2. I learned about the SOWR meeting from an article in the Daily Record, and I made a mental note of the meeting date when I read the article. But yesterday when I tried to find the article to get details of time and place, I couldn't find it. Meanwhile, the meeting wasn't listed in the Daily Record's printed calendar. (I'm not a subscriber to the Northern Kittitas County Tribune, but I should be; meanwhile, I try to read it at the library.) I finally found the details through an Internet search, which led me to the NKC Tribune's calendar -- I should have looked there first.

So: when planning a meeting, realize that some people who want to come will be like me. Send a press release to newspapers a week or two in advance. (Don't be bothered if they don't print it, it's nothing personal.) Be sure the event is listed in the newspapers' online and printed calendars, so people can find information on the day of the event. Consider listing the meeting on Chamber of Commerce calendars, too, if it's relevant.

3. Develop an e-mail list of people who come to meetings and others who might be interested. All leaders in the organization should have the technology and the know-how to at least send and receive e-mails. Consider using opt-out ("Please let us know if you'd like to be removed from this list") and/or opt-in ("If we don't hear from you, we won't be sending you any more e-mails) language from time to time, to make sure the right people are getting your e-mails.

4. Some of your most important people may be so busy that they need to be called with reminders about the meeting.

5. Meeting attendance will go up and down, because people are busy and not everyone will be able to come to every meeting. Don't worry if your group slowly declines in number until only the most active and committed people come to meetings. You're interested in quality of meeting progress, not quantity of people. Of course, you do need enough people to have, share, develop, and act on good ideas, and enough people to do what needs to get done.

6. The leader of the group can expect to have a significant workload, even though everyone who comes to meetings should be expected to help by volunteering for or accepting assignments.

7. Everyone should have contact information for everyone else.

8. If you volunteer for or accept an assignment, be sure to do it, or tell the leader if you can't. Just do your best.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Save Our Water Resources meeting

This evening I went to a meeting of Save Our Water Rights (SOWR), a group of Upper County citizens concerned about/affected by the well moratorium and its aftermath. I listened for a while and then introduced myself. I felt a little bad about interrupting their meeting, but I tried to keep it to a minimum.

I'm really glad I went to this meeting, and I'm hoping I can learn more about SOWR's point of view -- it was missing from the research I did for my earlier posts about the well moratorium issue, because SOWR didn't exist at the time.

Here's my Well Moratorium Summary, from back in July.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Time for a haircut

I have been waiting for an excuse to cut my ponytailed hair for over 30 years. I figure running for county commissioner is probably a good enough reason.

I originally started growing my hair long because my girlfriend in college liked long hair. That was a plenty good enough reason, but the fact that I come from a family of 6 boys and 1 girl, and my dad cut everyone's but the girl's hair, helped make it easy. I had never been to a barbershop. The hair was never really any kind of a political statement, it just became a habit that it was time to break.

Of course, I couldn't just slink out and get my hair cut and show up somewhere with short hair.

So I had my hair cut in Downtown Ellensburg, sitting next to the famously un-trimmed Ellensburg Bull. Channel 2 and the Daily Record were kind enough to send reporters, and local hair stylist Robyn Hull officiated (you can also find her by searching FaceBook for "Hair by Robyn"). My original plan had been to send the hair to Locks of Love (here's their faq), but they prefer hair without so much grey, so I'll just send them a donation -- Robyn also donated her fee, which was very nice of her.

I liked the new look and feel from the start. Robyn did a great job!

Monday, August 30, 2010

Horse park = perfect fit for Kittitas County

I'm pretty sure that, like me, most people who live in the lower county will be surprised to learn just how great a facility the new horse park near Cle Elum is. I wasn't able to go to the Northwest Shootout over the weekend, but I have had a tour. In addition to being extremely well-done, it's a classic example of a one-of-a-kind state facility located centrally here in Kittitas County.

Glenn Beck would vote for me

From FoxNews.com (3rd paragraph from end): "We should be looking for people with ideas. The country is in trouble and I don't see a political solution. I think both parties have sold their souls."

Friday, August 27, 2010

Farmers' Market Tomorrow

I'll be at the Ellensburg Farmers' Market with the last of this variety of peaches. Stop by for a sample and a chat!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Board of Adjustment on way out?

Peach season is just about over (this weekend is when those in the know about getting really tree-ripe peaches will show up at the orchard), and I'll be more consistent about posting from here on out.

An article in yesterday's Daily Record tells us that the BoCC is thinking of replacing the 5-citizen Board of Adjustment with an attorney to rule on the various things the BoA rules on -- these are outlined in Section 15A.01.040.5 of the County Code.

Two points: (1) this is a really big change, and the BoCC should consider waiting to make a decision until after the new commissioner is sworn in following the election. The outgoing commissioner lost badly in the primary, apparently a reaction to his incompetence.

(2) More importantly, we need more citizen involvement in government, not less. The BoA's duties involve actually exercising judgement, not just making sure all the i's are dotted and the t's crossed in applications. The proposal reported in the paper mentions a Wenatchee attorney as the possible replacement for the citizen board, but the location of the replacement isn't the point.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Early primary results

We interrupt this issues-oriented blog with preliminary election results. The primary is turning out just about as I expected: Don Williamson and I are splitting the not-Obie vote; I have more votes than Don, so the general election will pit me against Obie. Campaigning with/against (however you say that) Don was a pleasure: he's a good and honorable man.

County-wide results are here, and state-wide results are here.

Photo: results as of 8 pm. There were about 1000 ballots left to count, so things could change.

We now return to regular programming: issues.

Big Solar in California on NPR

Here's a story on NPR this morning, about a very large solar project in the Central Valley of California. Very interesting; according to the story, projects must break ground by the end of the year in order to qualify for federal subsidies. There's a transcript and access to audio at the link.

Photo credit: artist's conception of the Panoche Valley solar project, from NPR story page.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

TSR Approved

I've just come back from the Board of Adjustment meeting, which ran from 6 pm until after 10 -- I left just before the vote, which appeared to be heading toward approval. It's hard to distill over 4 hours of public meeting into a blog post, but here's a quick try.

It certainly is good that the Upper County will see some jobs during construction. It was refreshing to hear the contractor virtually promise lots of local jobs, after hearing wind farm companies at other meetings basically say that the wouldn't be hiring local people. As for long-term jobs, I have a hard time coming up with 35 job titles for a facility with no moving parts -- it's not like they'll be running three shifts. But I digress.

What I keep coming back to is the poor business case for the project. We're much too far north for reasonable solar energy production. It's a matter of cosmology and physics. What we're seeing is an unintended consequence of government incentives for renewable energy projects. In other kinds of business, if a company makes a mistake like siting a $300+ million project hundreds of miles north of where it should be, the company loses money. In this case, it's us (we?) taxpayers who will be paying for the poor location.

Tax and other incentives are a good tool, but I have seen so much abuse of them in the renewable energy industry that I have to wonder if they really are such a good tool, after all. I'll have to think about this. Meanwhile, on the bright side (no pun!), we can expect to see the Governor and at least one Senator visiting Kittitas County, and that'll be fun.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

District 3

Note: this post is a bit of election housekeeping. If you're looking for the TSR posts, scroll down, or check out the Blog Archive at the left.

A number of you have contacted me, wondering why the primary ballot you got in the mail doesn't include the opportunity to vote for me. It turns out District 3, which is the area that votes for this County Commissioner seat in the primary, doesn't include as much of Ellensburg as many of us thought. It's especially confusing in the part of town shown on the map. It probably doesn't help that I have a few signs in District 1, but when people who live on busy streets ask, I give them a sign.

There's every reason to believe that you'll be able to vote for me in the general election, which will include the entire county. Meanwhile, you can still call or e-mail your District 3 friends and ask them to vote for me. Thanks for your support!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

TSR Summary II: Conditional Use Considerations

As we have seen in earlier posts, large renewable energy projects are conditional uses in agriculture-20, forest and range, commercial agriculture, and commercial forest zones. The TSR project claims to be the largest in the country, maybe the world, and would cover about 1.5 sections (1.5 square miles) in the eastern foothills of the Cascade Mountains of Washington with solar panels.

Once a project has been properly proposed, it's up to the Board of Adjustment (BoA) to consider and decide whether to allow the project to go forward. The relevant sections of the the County Code include 17.60A (Conditional Uses), especially 17.60A.010 and 17.60A.020, which are short enough to quote below (with a little editing for length; my paraphrasing is in [square brackets]). Chapter 17.96 describes the activities of the BoA itself.
Chapter 17.60A.010 Review Criteria.

The [BoA]...may permit and authorize a conditional use when the following requirements have been met:

1. The [BoA] shall determine that the proposed use is essential or desirable to the public convenience and not [dangerous, annoying or inconsistent with] the character of the surrounding neighborhood.
2. The [BoA] shall determine that the proposed use [will not cost the taxpayers too much, that there is enough infrastructure supporting the project, or that the proposer will supply needed infrastructure, or that it will generate enough economic return to taxpayers to offset costs.]

17.60A.020 Conditions.

1. In permitting such uses the [BoA] may impose in addition to the regulations specified herein, such conditions as it deems necessary to protect the best interests of the surrounding property or neighborhood or the county as a whole.

[2 and 3 aren't very relevant here]
I'm guessing "desirable to the public convenience" is a term of art that means that a project should be beneficial to the county and/or its residents in some way. Likewise, in the Conditions section, conditions can be imposed to make a project more beneficial to the project area or the county as a whole.

So a conditional use project is supposed to be good for the county in some way, good enough to balance anything unpleasant about the project. Since change is painful, practically any project is going to bother someone, so every project had better have at least some benefits.

Here's where we run into one of the challenges of utility-scale renewable energy projects. In business-speak, these projects are high capex, low opex things. That means they cost a lot to build (capital expense), but don't cost much to operate (operating expense). What's more, most of the capital cost is paid outside the county, to manufacturers and to specialized construction crews that travel from job to job. So these projects don't translate into much in the way of jobs.

And here's also where we run into one of my pet peeves about renewable energy projects in Kittitas county and in Eastern Washington in general: out here is where the renewable energy is, and out here is where we get to live with the facilities that harvest the energy, but almost all of the benefits go somewhere else, especially when we're talking about out-of-county landowners.

That's all for now. I'm not going to presume to suggest how I think the BoA should proceed, but it has been helpful to me to think through these issues.

Photo credit: the Jumilla solar farm in Spain, at about 38.48° north latitude -- about the same latitude as Sacramento; Kittitas county is around 47°. It was the largest in the world, at 20 MW, in 2008.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

TSR Summary I: Conditional Use Application

The Teanaway Solar Reserve project highlights one of the challenges of development decisions in any county: what to do with projects that aren't really a good fit for the location, but which owners of the property want to do anyway? What if the project is a really bad fit?

My thinking on this issue took less research than the well moratorium issue (posted July 12), since I know a fair amount about renewable energy. I learned the most about zoning and the County Code as I consulted the following sources:
  • A Kittitas County Office of Community Development official
  • The Strategies 306 representative in Cle Elum
  • A Cle Elum city official
  • The websites and news items listed in my post on July 20
  • The Kittitas County Code
Sorting through information about any project involves deciding which information from supporters and opponents is both factual and relevant, and some things that might seem relevant to supporters or opponents actually aren't relevant when it comes to officially making the land-use decisions.

One thing that is clear is that the site is not excellent, or even very good, for generating solar energy. According to a state solar map, the location receives 3.7-3.8 kW/m2 of solar energy. National solar maps show that there are many locations in the Southwest that receive more than 7 kW/m2. It's hard to find any locations in Washington that are competitive when it comes to solar energy, but here's one example, in Richland. It's in a location that receives 4.1-4.2 kW/m2, and it is a demonstration project, not a utility-scale project. The TSR location seems to have been chosen because it is convenient as a result of the relationships between the various players. Motives are important, but not necessarily relevant when it comes to land use decisions.

What is relevant is how a project relates to the County Code. In this case, the relevant part of the Code is mostly in Title 17 (Zoning), specifically 17.56 (Forest and Range Zone) which is the current zoning of the project site. The Purpose and Intent section of 17.56 says,
The purpose and intent of this zone is to provide for areas of Kittitas County wherein natural resource management is the highest priority and where the subdivision and development of lands for uses and activities incompatible with resource management are discouraged.
I expect "resource management" in the Forest and Range Zone was intended to mean things like, well, forest and rangeland, not solar resources, which wouldn't have been part of the traditional understanding of the phrase back when this part of the Code was written.

For each zoning category, there is a list of uses that are allowed without asking the county's permission, and there is a list of uses that are "conditional," meaning the owner/developer needs to get a conditional use permit before proceeding. Although a major solar farm is very unlike any of the conditional uses listed in 17.56, a later section, 17.61 (Utilities) says that utility developments of various kinds are conditional uses in some zones; TSR is what's called a "major alternative energy facility." That means it's worth at least asking the county's permission to do the project.

Whew. It took a fair amount of writing and reading for us just to get to understanding that submitting a conditional use application is worth a try, but it's interesting to learn how all this works. Tune in next time for more on the application (the actual decision is up to the Board of Adjustment, of course).

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Thanks, Professor Manweller...

...but we need to correct a few things about his piece in today's Daily Record. Of course I am flattered to have been mentioned in his column at all (I'll add a link to it as soon as I can find one). I am indeed the past leader of a short-lived local Move-On.org group.

Immediately after the "General Betray Us" incident I quit MoveOn. I spelled out the reasons why I quit in an e-mail that I copied as high in the organization's chain of command as I could. My e-mail said, in part,

.... I'll spare you a long list of concerns, but I have lost confidence in MoveOn/OpDem's ability to lead on this issue. The childish "General Betray-us" ad was just one of several things that have caused this, and it came even after I had lost confidence.

Not long after, I had the following e-mail exchange with Professor Manweller, in which I offered to tell the local Republican Party about my concerns with MoveOn. Prof. Manweller's reply comes first, then my initial e-mail to him:

Subject: Re: Thanks and FYI‏
To: Steve Verhey
From: Mathew Manweller (manweller@)
Sent: Sat 9/22/07 7:11 PM
To: Steve Verhey (verheys@hotmail.com)


Thanks for the email. Much appreciated. I think that one of the most significant barriers to a sucessful environmental movement is that people are often divided by process rather than goal. We all agree that a health environment is important, but we fight about how we shoudl achieve it. For me, the CLC is one of those groups that trancends this divide. It is voluntary and incentive based (so conservatives like me will sign on) but it pursues a traditionally liberal issue of environmental protection. If we could only find a "third way" for all the policy issues.

Would be very interested to hear your thoughts on MoveOn.org. and why you left. Let's chat more.

Thanks again for the nice email.


Subject: Thanks and FYI
To Mathew Manweller
From: verheys@hotmail.com
Sent: Sat 9/22/07 12:02 PM
To: Mathew Manweller (manweller@)

Hi Matt,

First, thanks for your performance at the CLC luncheon the other day. Very nice work for a good cause.

Second, it might interest you to know that I've left MoveOn/Operation Democracy. If you're looking for a speaker for a KC Republican Committee meeting one of these days, I'd be happy to explain why.

Best wishes,


Sunday, August 1, 2010

Peaches ready soon

I talked to a voter yesterday who wondered why it's been so long since I updated my blog. It's been a busy week, between campaigning, helping get the peaches ready for harvest (Verhey's Peaches, now with FaceBook page!), and helping Phil at the biodiesel plant.

I'm in charge of managing peach pest control. This year, probably because of the cool spring, insects seem to be less of a problem and fungal diseases seem to be more of a problem. The thunderstorms overnight Friday meant a trip to the farm the next day for fungicide spraying, but as I was filling the sprayer another thunderstorm came. (Note about fungicides, and pesticides in general: over the past few years some great chemicals have become available -- now we have options that include organic-certified and zero-reentry and zero-preharvest products, which is what we use now.)

Saturday, July 24, 2010

TSR Update

On August 11 the Board of Adjustment will meet to hear public comments on the TSR conditional use permit. Later, probably this summer but maybe in the fall, the board will vote on whether to issue the permit. I'm a little surprised at the lack of news and discussion about this project, given how various wind projects were received.

This past week I visited with a cognizant official at the County Planning Department and with various citizens, who helped me understand the process. I continue to be impressed with the professionalism of county staff. Meanwhile, I have yet to find any citizens who support the project.

We all have mixed feelings about wind power projects (and I don't think any of us like the way the Kittitas Wind Project looks), but at least the wind does blow here, more than almost any other place in Washington, and not much less than the best wind power locations in the country. The same is just not true for solar energy: Kittitas county -- the entire Northwest, really -- is not competitive when it comes to megawatt solar photovoltaic potential.

Map sources: Washington solar (top), US solar (middle), Washington wind plus transmission lines (bottom).

Please dial back the rhetoric

There's no excuse for the language that's being used in the comments section of the Daily Record's article about the first candidate's forum. Please keep things civil.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

TSR sources of information

Here are some sites worth looking at (thanks to Julie for thecart.org).

I do want to make it clear that I'm starting this research process with an open mind, and I'm equally prepared to find that the project is worthwhile, or in the wrong place, or that I need more information.

TSR's Facebook page-- Not a great source of information, but they do seem to post news updates fairly regularly. The site is about 4 miles east of Cle Elum, not north as the FB page says.

For a little while TSR had a blog, but then migrated the blog to their current project web page. The web site includes a "fact vs. fiction" page.

Seattle Times article, Feb. 1, 2010: "Proposed solar power plant tangled in many messy questions." I'm going to have to read this one a couple of times.

Forbes.com's report on the DNS determination.

Strategies 360, the strategic positioning (I think that means "PR") firm that seems to be handling everything related to the project. That the project was mentioned by Forbes indicates that S360 knows what they're doing.

A February announcement by TSR said that Potelco, a Sumner, WA utility contractor would be a "contractor and equity partner." FWIW, Potelco is also a client of S360 and is a subsidiary of Houston-based Quanta Services Inc., which has the enviable ticker symbol of PWR. Renewable Energy Corporation, a solar panel/system manufacturer in Moses Lake, is also a S360 client.

There appear to be two Facebook pages of groups expressing concern about TSR: Friends of the Teanaway River Valley and Citizens for a Rural Teanaway.

Citizens for a Rural Teanaway also has a very informative website where I'll be spending more time. Near the top of the page is a suggestion that the project is more suited for sagebrush country because of sagebrush's supposed inferior aesthetics compared to trees. As a person who grew up in sagebrush country, I happen to think sagebrush is beautiful, and dense trees kind of creep me out.

A January 27, 2010 Daily Record article about the Cle Elum City Council's concerns about the project.

Stay tuned....

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Teanaway Solar Reserve

The TSR site is outlined in white.

The Teanaway Solar Reserve project will be in the news off and on for the next few weeks, as the county Department of Community Services has issued a mitigated determination of nonsignificance for the project (July 16 Daily Record article, Kittitas County Community Development page. As I wrote earlier, it seems to me that a project of this size and uniqueness in the area deserves a closer look, but that's not necessarily the way State Environmental Policy Act works (RCW 43.21C.030).

This is an interesting topic for several reasons. The county's mishandling of the well moratorium has led to an unusually difficult economy in the Upper County, and the project promises jobs, at least during the construction phase. On the other hand, there appears to be strong opposition to the project among many Upper County residents.

Over the next week or so I'll be taking a closer look at the project, and talking to various stakeholders in the same way I analyzed the well moratorium issue.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Well moratorium summary

One year ago this week the Department of Ecology imposed a moratorium on well drilling in Upper Kittitas County.

Being an independent, there's no one to tell me what to think about this (or any other) issue, and I don't have any financial interest or ideological bias, so I've had the opportunity to do my own research and reach my own conclusions. In my research, some of which I have mentioned earlier in this blog, I've talked to, among others:
  • a County Commissioner,
  • a well driller,
  • a founder of Aqua Permanente (the organization that initially brought the issue of exempt wells to the attention of the Department of Ecology),
  • the superintendent of one of the two water companies of which my property is a member,
  • owners of property directly affected by the moratorium,
  • construction workers unemployed as a result of the building slowdown in the Upper County.

  • I've also attended public meetings about the issue, gone to a state employment/ economics conference, and read many -- but by no means all -- of the newspaper articles about it. And, of course, I've read as much of the relevant state code (RCW) as possible. I've used all this information in my thinking about the causes and effects of the moratorium, and about how the situation might have been handled differently.

    Briefly, my conclusion is that the well moratorium didn't need to happen, and I certainly would have handled the situation differently and in a way that preserved jobs as much as possible.

    The issue isn't as complicated as it sounds, but there is a lot to explain. Explaining how I reached this conclusion will take some space, so I'll continue on a different page. Please read the entire post first if you decide to comment below.

    Saturday, July 10, 2010

    Employment situation and outlook

    Yesterday I went to the Central Washington 2010 Economic Symposium in Yakima and, interestingly, it gave me still more insight into how we got into the Upper County well moratorium mess, as well as into the entire employment situation in Kittitas County.

    One strong message was that the economy has drastically changed compared to where it was 5 years ago, and the way forward will be very different from the recent past. Kittitas County is worse off than other Central Washington counties in some ways, and better off in other ways. As you might expect, the overall effect was both sobering and encouraging, with some clues about how to go about strengthening Kittitas County's economy.

    Thursday, July 8, 2010

    Ecology meeting with BoCC

    Yesterday, continuing my research on the upper county well moratorium, I went to the meeting between the Board of County Commissioners and Tom Tebb, Director of the Department of Ecology's Yakima office. On the phone from Olympia was Ecology's attorney.

    Everyone seemed to be on their best behavior. I was interested in the tone of the meeting, since the primary election is coming up, and some of the commissioners (especially Mark McClain) have been quoted as having said some fairly intemperate things about this issue.

    The takehome message of the meeting was basically the same as the Daily Record's editorial yesterday: don't spend any money on building unless you have legal access (in addition to practical access) to water.

    Action by the county in the past weeks had complicated the situation, but no one wants a homeowner to have spent money on construction only to find they can't have the water they need. Here's Ecology's web page, "How to Request Water Budget Neutral Determination."

    Sunday, July 4, 2010

    Teanaway Solar Reserve

    One issue that awaiting the new county commissioner is the Teanaway Solar Reserve project, located, according to the project's FaceBook page, 4 miles north of Cle Elum. Here's a fairly comprehensive Yakima Herald-Republic story from October 31, 2009.

    The project is controversial because the Cle Elum area could really use more jobs, but the project site is in the Teanaway River area, which is currently only very lightly developed.

    I regularly do work as a renewable energy consultant, although I don't do professional work on solar photovoltaic (PV) projects. I'm still learning about this project, and I'm sure I'll be writing more about it, but here's some information to start with.

    As shown on the map* above, the TSR site receives less solar radiation than the Puget Sound Energy solar site at Wildhorse. PSE has reportedly decided not to expand the Wildhorse solar project, even though the existing solar panels are already connected to the grid, and the Wildhorse site receives a considerably lower amount of annual precipitation than the TSR area.

    Some areas in south-central Washington are reasonably promising for solar PV projects, but, really, most of the action in the U.S. is much farther south.

    The next step -- due to be taken this summer -- in the process of considering this project is determining whether an environmental impact statement (EIS) will be required. Since the project is being billed as "the largest in the Northwest" (TSR website) and "one of the world's largest" (Yakima Herald-Republic story), it seems pretty obvious that it is unusual, and that strongly suggests that an EIS should be done. Come to think of it, locating a large solar PV project in the forested mountains is probably not something that has ever been done before, anywhere. Clearly special care is needed in considering how to proceed.

    *Click here for map source.