Supervisors Turn Down Oak Hills Solar Project

(March 12)  The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors this week upheld the county planning commission’s September denial of Sycamore Physicians Partners’ application for a permit to construct a solar energy project in Oak Hills.
Sycamore Physicians Partners’ application had been filed with the county prior to the county’s imposition of a moratorium on the consideration and approval of solar projects that went into effect in May of 2013 but has now elapsed.
Sycamore had asked the county land use services division to certify a 2.7-megawatt photovoltaic solar facility on 20 acres in the unincorporated county area south and west of Hesperia in a rural living land use district on the northeast corner of Fuente Avenue and El Centro Road.
County staff, however, acceding to widespread objections by homeowners in rural desert communities throughout the county who maintain that solar fields are a too-intensive use that is incompatible with nearby residential neighborhoods, recommended that Sycamore’s application for the conditional use permit be denied. According to the county land used division’s staff report from last year, the project would have a “significant impact on the environment, specifically with regard to scenic resources.” According to county planning director Terri Rahhal, at public hearing for the project held on August 8, 2013 , there was considerable public opposition to the project and  some participating “expressed concerns about land use compatibility, given the location of the project site in an area surrounded by rural residential uses.”
Rahhal said the planning commission made a tentative finding at that time that the proposed project “would not be compatible with the rural character of the Oak Hills community and would therefore not be consistent with the Oak Hills Community Plan. On September 27, 2013, Sycamore Physicians Partners, LLC, filed a timely appeal of the planning commission’s action to deny the project. The applicant’s appeal contended that the planning commission’s findings for denial were inaccurate and that the project is consistent with the goals and policies of the county general plan and the Oak Hills Community Plan. The applicant contended that the project will provide a much-needed renewable source of energy and that the design of the project will not impact existing view sheds or significantly impact the environment and will be compatible with the existing rural character of the neighborhood.”
As first proposed, the project would have entailed an unmanned solar array operation including 54 arrays containing non-reflective modules mounted on a fixed tilt system.
The proposed modules would have been oriented to the south and angled to a degree to maximize solar resource efficiency. The modules were to be connected to inverters, which convert direct current into electrical alternating current. The electricity was then to be stepped up and collected in conduits that terminate at the point of interconnection to the local electricity grid via an existing Southern California Edison (SCE) power line along Fuente Avenue.
Each solar module was to have been fastened to the ground surface via hydraulically driven, two-inch diameter, galvanized pipe. Sycamore Physicians Partners maintain this method of fixing the arrays would result in minimal topsoil disturbance and would allow retention of much of the on-site vegetation, which would moderate ground-level wind speeds and, consequently, minimize erosion. The maximum height of the panels had been set to range from 8-10 feet depending upon existing site topography.
Project approval would have required a conditional use permit. A conditional use permit is a discretionary application that requires a finding of consistency with the general plan and any applicable community plan, among other findings for approval. The proposed project would have provided, according to Rahal, a renewable source of energy for the surrounding community, consistent with several conservation policies of the general plan. Rahal also maintained that the proposal “conforms to applicable design standards of the development code. However, based upon the testimony and information provided at the August 8, 2013, and September 19, 2013, planning commission hearings, the commission found that the project is incompatible with the existing rural community and that sufficient evidence has not been provided to justify a finding of no significant impact on the existing aesthetics and views of the area.”
On December 27, 2013, Sycamore Physicians Partners submitted a proposal to scale down the project from 2.7 megawatts to 1.5 megawatts, reducing the number of solar arrays from 54 to 15, while the boundaries of the project site were to remain the same. The applicant requested that the board of supervisors consider approval of the revised site plan, which was not presented to the planning commission.
“Staff continues to recommend upholding the planning commission action on the project because the site plan revisions do not alter the basic land use compatibility and aesthetic issues cited in the findings for denial,” Rahal said.

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