If Elmore County's three commissioners had their way last week, the packed cafeteria at Mountain Home Junior High School would not have known if they were talking about a subdivision or a nuclear reactor.
It was a scene right out of the Simpsons; nearly every time someone veered into the realm of nuclear power, Chairman Larry Rose implored them not to.
"Do you understand this is about zoning?" Rose asked Mark Pecchenino, a planning consultant for Alternate Energy Holdings Inc., which wants to build a nuclear power plant on farmland along the Snake River near Hammett, some 60 miles southeast of Boise.
Pecchenino was allowed to show a series of photos headlined "farm or reactor?" demonstrating that it is often difficult to tell the difference between a grain silo and the towers at a nuclear reactor site.
But when he quoted a Columbia University professor who touts nuclear energy, Rose cut him off, reminding him that if he goes nuclear, then everyone else in the room would too.
AEHI relied on two main arguments to justify changing the 1,280 acres of farm ground into heavy industrial use: Company representatives argued that the power plant would create thousands of new jobs and that it would be green and safe. To drive home the point, the word "green" in their slideshow appeared in green. The environmental and economic benefits comply with parts of the county's comprehensive plan, Pecchenino said.
After the hearing, AEHI CEO Don Gillispie told BW that future permit hearings will focus largely on nuclear power.
Numerous opponents, the majority of them from the nearby town of Hammett, argued that Gillispie's claims were specious—local jobs have not been guaranteed and environmental and safety concerns about the plant abound.
One Hammett farmer argued that the plant would discharge polluted, hot water into the Snake River and that the agriculture industry already provides good jobs in the county; her farm supports 14 families.
But most of the opposition centered on preserving agricultural land, one of the goals of the county's comprehensive plan. It's the same argument often made against housing developments or shopping malls in still-rural counties. The land where Gillispie wants to build has been owned by a Marsing dairyman since 2007 but has been in production since the 1970s.
Elmore County Commissioner Connie Cruser asked numerous questions about the history of the parcel.
Several organizations testified against the rezone, including the Snake River Alliance, a nuclear watchdog group. Energy Policy Analyst Liz Woodruff reminded the commissioners that their Planning and Zoning Commission recommended against rezoning the ground and warned that the industrial use would endanger the natural resources and quality of life of the area.
But Rose cut her off as well, warning her not to talk about the immense amounts of water used by nuclear reactors.
Commissioners made no decision at the April 22nd hearing and Rose said it would probably be about a month before they could finish their review of the transcript and all of the documents submitted.
According to Jerry Mason, a Coeur d'Alene attorney who moderated the large public hearing for the county, the rezone decision will be tied to a development agreement to specify that the zoning can only be used to operate a power plant in the county. That agreement will require another public hearing, followed by a third hearing on a conditional use permit, which depends on AEHI getting approval from a host of other regulatory bodies including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Mason told one man who testified that the rezone and development agreement would be linked—no rezone without the agreement and no development agreement without the industrial zoning.
More than 200 people attended the zoning hearing; 73 signed up to speak split evenly pro and con, though not all testified when called upon.
While most people who spoke were careful to say "industrial use" rather than "nuclear reactor," Twin Falls anti-nuclear activist/podiatrist Peter Rickards, sporting a giant name tag, cut to the chase.
"I respectfully disagree that nuclear power has nothing to do with this permit," he said.