Board Of Supervisors Overturns Approval Of Landers Solar Plant

(May 6) In a split decision, the board of supervisors this week signaled it would grant the appeal by a group of Landers residents to overturn the county planning commission’s December 2014 approval of a three megawatt solar power project in their desert community.
Power Bowman Solar applied for and obtained from the county planning commission approval of a conditional use permit to establish a three megawatt photovoltaic solar power generating facility on 35 acres in Landers, west of Sunny Vista Road, south of Herdmans Road, north of Summers Road, and east of Bowman Trail. Planned facilities proposed included photovoltaic panels mounted at either a fixed tilt or on single axis trackers, supported by steel piers driven into the ground. The height of panels was proposed to range from 6 to 12 feet, in rows running north and south on the project site. The proposed design also included inverters and transformers, mounted on small concrete pads and distributed across the site, as well as an unmanned data acquisition system to monitor and control facility operations. The project was to connect to Southern California Edison’s (SCE) existing Landers 25 kV distribution line, near the intersection of Bowman Trail and Reche Road, via a 0.4 mile generator tie line placed in the public right-of-way along Bowman Trail. The electric power produced by the project was to be sold to SCE under long-term power purchase agreements.
According to a county land use services staff report, “The zoning designation of the project site and all surrounding properties is rural living, with a 5-acre minimum parcel size, in the Homestead Valley Community Plan area. Commercial solar energy generation facilities are permitted in this zone, subject to approval of a conditional use permit. Surrounding properties are primarily vacant, and the surrounding area is very sparsely populated. There is one residence abutting the site to the north, a cluster of 7 homes ranging from 665 to 1,730 ft. away from the site to the northwest, one home approximately 800 ft. to the east, and another approximately 2,000 ft. away to the south. All property owners within 1,000 ft. from the site were notified of the project application, and none responded in opposition. The owner of the adjacent property to the east submitted a letter of support.”
The county planning commission conducted a public hearing on December 4, 2014, to consider the conditional use permit. At the public hearing, the planning commissioners posed questions and heard testimony from nearby property owners both in support and in opposition.
The primary issues raised by those in support of the project stated that it would create jobs, protect the environment, and reduce dependency on foreign oil.
The primary issues raised by those in opposition stated that the project would place commercial solar in a residential neighborhood, decrease property values, impact wildlife, impact scenic views and increase avian mortality.
Power Bowman Solar addressed concerns relative to dust, grading, avian mortality, and on-site construction at the December hearing. Further testimony from the applicant’s team sought to address concerns about visual impacts, property values, and resident safety.
At the conclusion of the public hearing, the planning commission approved the project, with members Raymond Allard, Nan Rider, and Audrey Mathews voting to approve and Randy Coleman and Paul Smith voting against.
On December 15, 2014, the Landers Association and 12 property owners filed a timely appeal of the planning commission action to approve the project. According to the appellants, the site is inappropriate for the project because it does not meet the alternative requirements, being neither unobtrusive nor built on disturbed lands; inadequate and untimely notice of the project application and hearing was provided; the project will have detrimental economic effects on the community; letters submitted in support of the project were misleading; notice was not provided to the appropriate municipal advisory council or the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms; the project was the subject of code enforcement citations as a result of work initiated prior to project consideration; and the county disregarded comments related to the California Environmental Quality Act.
According to the county’s land use services staff, however, the project would retain and transplant native vegetation at the perimeter of the facility and the panels would be screened from view and be unobtrusive; adequate notice of the project proposal was provided in compliance with the county development code and a project notice was mailed to surrounding property owners within 1,000 feet of the exterior boundaries of the subject parcels upon acceptance of the original application; infrastructure improvements required of the project will benefit the community and enhance the value of abutting properties; no empirical evidence of detrimental effects of solar energy development on nearby property values was submitted to support the appeal; widespread support, opposition, and interest in commercial solar facilities was expressed by a broad segment of the population, giving the planning commission the opportunity to render a decision in a robust factual setting; the project notice was sent to the military contact at the United States Naval Air Systems Command who coordinates with all military installations, as well as the Lucerne Valley/Johnson Valley Municipal Advisory Council, the Homestead Valley Community Council and the Morongo Basin Municipal Advisory Council; and after the county’s code enforcement division received calls reporting that utilities were being installed and trenches being excavated without permits, a code enforcement case was opened but ultimately it was determined that the work in question, while associated with the project, was being done within the road right-of-way by a subcontractor for Northern Energy and Power under encroachment and excavation permits issued to SCE by the county’s public works division for work within the right-of-way or within the SCE easement, and no code enforcement violations were found and no land disturbance on private property was observed.
Both Tom Hudson, the director of the county’s land use services department, and Terri Rahhal, the county planning director, recommended denial of the appeal and the upholding of the conditional use permit for the project based on the findings and subject to the conditions of approval adopted by the planning commission.
Toward the close of the May 5 hearing, which included a video hook-up with the Joshua Tree Community Center to allow local residents there to offer their input, board of supervisors chairman James Ramos suggested that he could not accept county staff’s description of the property on which the solar facility is to be built as “disturbed,” pointing out that there were no mining operations, electrical substations, landfills or water treatment facilities preexisting on the property. He elicited from Rahhal a statement that it was considered disturbed because there had been some offroad activity in the area and that people had dumped trash there on occasion.
“I’m having a hard time getting over saying it is “somewhat disturbed,” he said. He then took issue with the suggestion that because the property had not been utilized it was therefore ripe for development. “It is not just vacant land,” Ramos said “There’s a lot of pristine land out there. It’s worth finding that balance between business and development and solar. I’m having a hard time seeing how that fits with rural living and single family [residential zoning].”
Ultimately, Ramos and supervisors Robert Lovingood and Curt Hagman supported and supervisors Josie Gonzales and Janice Rutherford opposed a motion declaring intent to grant the appeal, deny the project and continue the matter until June 2 with direction to staff to formulate findings for denial.

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