Board Delays Decision On Appeal Of Rejection Of Helendale Solar Field

The board of supervisors this week delayed until February 25 upholding or overturning the county planning commission’s denial of Sunlight Partners, LLC’s application for a conditional use permit to establish a 7.5 megawatt photovoltaic solar power generating facility on 80.6 acres in Helendale.
On October 17, 2013, the county planning commission conducted a public hearing to consider Sunlight Partner’s application for the conditional use permit pertaining to the project. The planning commission heard testimony from the general manager of the Helendale Community Services District, who expressed concern that the project would impact the adjacent property owned by the district, which is currently used as a park. The district stated impacts to scenic vistas from the park related to dust and blow sand originating from the project site. While the matter was continued until the November 7, 2013 county planning commission meeting, the commission, by a vote of 3-2, directed staff  to prepare findings for denial of the conditional use permit based on the project being inconsistent with the goals and policies of the general plan, which require land use compatibility. County Land Use Services Department staff indeed prepared and presented findings for the denial of the project to the planning commission.
At its November 7, 2013, meeting, only four of the planning commission’s five members were present. In addition to staff’s findings for the denial of the project, the commissioners who were present were provided with the applicant’s revised site plan that incorporated an increased setback from the park property to reduce impacts related to aesthetics and blow sand. The revised site plan showed an increase in setback from the park property to the fence line from 15 feet to 249 feet.
According to Tom Hudson, the director of the Land Use Services Department, “This design change solves an inconsistency in the initial study/mitigated negative declaration related to the minimum distance from the proposed facility to the existing off-site residences. The revised plan was presented to the planning commission for consideration.”
Additional testimony was provided by the Helendale Community Services District reiterating concerns regarding the potential impacts on the adjacent property, including blow sand and impacts to view qualities. The representative of the Helendale Community Services District also stated that she did not agree that the revised site plan presented at the hearing would reduce those impacts.
At the conclusion of the public hearing, the planning commission voted 2-2 on the item with one commissioner not present. By rule, the project was denied for not having the required majority vote for approval.
On November 18, 2013, the applicant filed a timely appeal of the planning commission action to deny the project. The issues raised in the appeal application included making reference to the consideration that the planning commission dismissed staff’s original recommendation to approve the project based on findings that the project complies with the county’s general plan and development code that was supported by analysis contained in the planning commission staff report.
Moreover, according to the appeal, the findings for denial were not supported by evidence, and the denial of the project violated the California Solar Rights Act.
Three months later, in his report to the board of supervisors on Tuesday, Hudson said, “Notwithstanding the outcome at the planning commission, staff is recommending that the appeal be granted and that the project be approved. Staff believes that the revised site plan submitted by the applicant between the October 17, 2013, and November 7, 2013 planning commission meetings mitigated the concerns initially raised by the Helendale Community Services District and the planning commission. The significant increase in project setbacks assuages the concerns expressed as to aesthetics and blow sand. The increase in setbacks also resolves the issue of the minimum distance from the proposed facility to the existing off-site residences. Findings for approval have been provided based upon these revisions.”
In his presentation to the board of supervisors this week, Hudson recommended that the board overturn the planning commission’s denial of project approval in November, be he also made available the proposed findings for denial that were prepared at the direction of the planning commission and which were adopted by virtue of the 2-2 vote.
The board did not vote on the matter on February 11, postponing its decision until February 25.
The proposed project site is situated in an unincorporated county area in the desert. The primary facility access point is proposed on Smithson Road, which runs along the southern project boundary. A secondary access point is proposed on Wild Road along the northern project boundary.
The project is to entail photovoltaic panels mounted on single axis trackers, supported by steel piers driven into the ground to an appropriate depth, as determined by soil conditions. The height of the panels will not exceed nine feet. The trackers will form rows running north and south. The design proposes five concrete pads, approximately 20 feet by 40 feet that would support 500KV inverters and mechanical components. Electricity generated onsite will be delivered to the existing electrical transmission system at the connection point along Smithson Road. The site will be surrounded by an eight foot high chain link fence with a security video monitoring system. The electricity produced by the panels will be sold to Southern California Edison under two long-term power purchase agreements. The first agreement was executed in January 2012 and required power generation by July 2013. An extension has been requested. A second agreement was executed in December 2012 and requires power generation by June 2014.

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