County approves intent to change zoning regulations
Cascade County Commissioners approved a resolution of intent to rezone 14 parcels owned by NorthWestern Energy and add ‘data center’ to the zoning regulations during a special meeting on Oct. 21.
The resolution of intent is open for the next month and unless a petition is filed with a certain number of signatures, the commission will have a second hearing and formally adopt the changes.
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.
The proposal is to change those 14 parcels from open space to agricultural zoning, which would allow the existing electricity generation uses.
No one spoke in opposition to the proposal during the commission meeting, but one person submitted several emails asking questions about the changes.
The county planning board recommended approval of the changes in May.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.