County considering rezoning; updated zoning regulations

Cascade County Commissioners will consider zoning changes for parcels owned by NorthWestern Energy and adding ‘data center’ to the zoning regulations during a special meeting on Oct. 21.

The NorthWestern properties are along the northern side of the Missouri River and include those containing the active hydroelectric Black Eagle and Rainbow powerhouse sites. The parcels are currently zoning ‘open space,’ a designation that is contrary to the dominant used of the land as power generating facilities regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Susteen opts not to continue with plans for data center in historic Rainbow Dam powerhouse

The proposal is to change those 14 parcels from open space to agricultural zoning, which would allow the existing electricity generation uses.

This particular zoning issue came up last year as NorthWestern Energy and Susteen Inc. were discussing a lease agreement for the historic Rainbow Powerhouse for the development of a blockchain data center. FERC has approved the use, but Susteen dropped out this spring.

County planning board meeting on zone changes related to Rainbow Dam postponed; decision on April 8 commission hearing on zoning regulation changes not yet released

Earlier this year, planning staff was approached regarding development requirements on the site and identified several areas of concern including the zoning incompatibility.

Turns out, the power company had completed significant improvements, including building a new powerhouse that became operational in 2013, without going through the county zoning process.

County looks to change zoning at dam facilities; add data center definition

“NorthWestern Energy has conducted several extensive upgrades to the facility in the past, however failed to follow the standard permitting process, which would have likely been impeded by the current zoning designation. It is anticipated that future upgrades to Rainbow or Cochrane dams could be impeded by the current zoning designation.
In the interest of resolving the outstanding zoning issue with the Rainbow Dam powerplant, and facilitating the establishment of an emerging modem land-use,” the county staff recommends sending the issue to the county planning board, according to the staff report in the spring when the rezone was being initially discussed in the spring, but was delayed since Susteen dropped out and COVID-19 hit.

NorthWestern submits data center lease proposal to federal regulators for historic Rainbow Powerhouse

Meaning that the existing facilities and the most recently constructed facility, are all in violation of county zoning as it currently stands.

Under the county’s current zoning regulations, data center is not specifically mentioned as an allowable use, meaning it would only be allowable in heavy industrial districts.

Data center considered as possible reuse for historic Rainbow Powerhouse

Adding the definition as an allowable use to the county regulations would allow the projects like the data center Susteen had proposed at the historic Rainbow Powerhouse, since those specific use callouts are used in permitting.