Industry At Last Reveals Tres Hermanos Intention: A 450-Megawatt Solar Farm

Looking beyond the objections of the cities of Chino Hills and Diamond Bar, the City of Industry yesterday signaled its intention of proceeding with building a 450-megawatt solar project on the grounds of Tres Hermanos Ranch and perhaps a portion of the property that city owns in adjoining Tonner Canyon.
The action comes after growing tension and contention between the City of Industry and both Chino Hills and Diamond Bar, where 2,450-acre Tres Hermanos Ranch is located and straddles the Los Angeles County/San Bernardino County border.
The City of Industry first acquired the ranch in 1978 through a $12.1 million purchase by its redevelopment agency. For nearly four decades, there had been no effort to develop the property, though there was recurrent talk of Industry using it as the location of a reservoir. Pursuant to state legislation that closed out redevelopment agencies up and down the state in 2011, Industry lost direct control of the property, the fate of which passed into the dual hands of the successor agency to Industry Redevelopment Agency, which the City of Industry had attenuated control over, and the oversight board to the successor agency, which Industry did not directly control.
With Tres Hermanos’ rolling hillsides, canyon creeks and oak woodlands beside verdant pastures for cattle, not to mention the bobcats, mountain lions, skunks and opossum that proliferate there, many Chino Hills and Diamond Bar residents have come to assume that the ranch exists as a wildland preserve. In reality the property has been subject to sale and eventual intensified use and development all along. In 2015, indications that the property might be developed residentially were given when GH America and South Coast Communities made a $100 million offer on the property. The City of Industry tentatively matched that offer. There were reports that GH America and South Coast Communities would push forth with an effort to develop anywhere in the range from 10,000 to 15,000 residential units on the property. That was problematic, however, since Chino Hills had land use and zoning restrictions that would have limited the maximum number of residential units to be built on the 1,750 acres of the ranch in San Bernardino County to 467, and Diamond Bar had limits on the developability of the 700 acres of the ranch in Los Angeles County that would allow no more than 624 homes to be constructed there.
City of Industry officials continued to play their cards close to vest, signaling that the city was interested in reacquiring the land for potential use as a location for a reservoir or utilities. In Chino Hills and Diamond Bar, officials stewed over the vagueness in the description of the proposals for the property. Meanwhile GH America and South Coast Communities upped their offer to $101 million, which was taken as a clear sign that an effort to develop the property residentially was inevitable. On the San Bernardino County side of the divide, in Chino Hills there was confidence that a voter approved initiative, 1999’s Measure U – which prohibits zone changes increasing density designated in the Chino Hills Specific Plan, the Chino Hills General Plan, the city’s zoning map, or any finalized development agreements without approval by a majority vote of the electorate of the city – would most likely prevent GH America and South Coast Communities or any other entity that acquired the property from carrying out a development plan as aggressive as the aforementioned 10,000 unit to 15,000 unit proposals.
On August 24, the City of Industry stole a march on everyone when it induced the oversight board to the Industry successor agency to sell all 2,450 acres to it for $41.65 million. The oversight board approved that action by a bare 4-3 majority. Industry officials declared that the city intended to use the land to build a solar farm and that they would also maintain open space on the property. The description given of the project was less than definitive, however. This heightened the already fever-pitch state of alert in Chino Hills and Diamond Bar, and the same day, August 24, that the oversight board consented to the $41.65 million sale, the City of Chino Hills made a challenge of the sale with the California Department of Finance. Diamond Bar followed four days later with its own request that the Department of Finance, which is officially tasked with approving the liquidation of the various redevelopment agencies’ assets under the law that rendered the state’s more than 400 redevelopment agencies out of existence, look into the matter. Both cities began to prepare legal action as well, utilizing a number of anticipated causes of action which included that the discounted sale of the property means that Chino Hills missed out on tax revenue in the neighborhood of $5 million and Diamond Bar likewise lost $2 million. Another issue to be raised in the suits is Industry’s action, apparently taken in closed sessions in 2016, which charted the solar project and made financial commitments to make it come about. Such action must be taken in an open public session. At its September 18 meeting, the Tres Hermanos Conservation Authority Board, which oversees a joint power authority that includes the cities of Diamond Bar and Chino Hills, resolved to begin preparing legal action of its own against the City of Industry.
Chino Hills and Diamond Bar officials were skeptical and distrustful on multiple fronts. They perceived the rumors being started about the 10,000 to 15,000 units being developed on the Tres Hermanos Ranch property as a ploy to stampede the citizenry in Chino Hills and Diamond Bar to accept as an alternative the development of the property as a massive solar farm in which virtually all of the land would be covered with solar arrays. Another issue was the report, hinted at by the City of Industry but never quite confirmed previously, that the solar farm would be designed to produce 447 megawatts. Based on calculations done by Chino Hills and Diamond Bar officials, to generate 447 megawatts would indeed require that a significant portion of the Tres Hermanos Ranch property, as well as some additional property in Tonner Canyon, be blanketed with solar panels. This was at a demonstrable variance from Industry officials’ claims that some of the property – indeed a considerable portion of it – would be preserved as open space. As Diamond Bar City Manager Dan Fox put it, “The problem is we have a way different definition of what open space is than does the City of Industry.”
When confronted with those concerns, City of Industry officials and those authorized to speak for the city ducked the question, saying they had yet to quantify the wattage to be produced by the facility. And they questioned what the basis was for the reports about how the land was to be used, which was essentially a confirmation that the city had not been forthcoming with regard to what its plans actually are.
Yesterday, October 12, City of Industry officials at last provided some level of clarity, giving approval to a 450-megawatt solar project. Ironically, that number was very close to the number put forth by Chino Hills and Diamond Bar officials, which just last week City of Industry officials were lambasting as “pure speculation.”
At issue are the concerns previously raised by Diamond Bar and Chino Hills officials, particularly the intensity of use and whether the commitment to achieve a 450-megawatt output will obviate the City of Industry’s claim that it will preserve some degree of open space on the property. At issue is what type of photovoltaic cells will be used and whether they will be mounted on arrays that will track with the sun. Available data indicates that to produce a single megawatt of power through the most efficient photovoltaic means, 100,000 square feet for just the arrays is required. Extra space, however, is needed for spacing between panels to prevent shadowing. In addition, space for other accessories and appurtenances is required. Thus, it is probably not realistic to expect to yield one megawatt of electricity on anything smaller than four acres. Given the contour of the property at Tres Hermanos Ranch, some grading would then be necessitated. Fencing and other facilities would further reduce the usability of all of the property. Nevertheless, assuming the most efficient of photovoltaic cells were to be used, it is theoretically possible that a solar farm on Tres Hermanos Ranch could generate 612 megawatts, if it were to be covered wall to wall with solar arrays. Under this calculation, if the 450 megawatt objective is achieved, roughly 73.5 percent of Tres Hermanos Ranch’s 2,450 acres – 1.801.4 acres – would need to be devoted to the footprint of the solar panels. This would leave some 648.6 acres of open space.
Saying their city has already spent $14 million on the proposal, Industry city officials voted to ratify a lease agreement and four amendments to an already existing agreement with La Jolla-based San Gabriel Valley Water and Power, which is now officially identified as the developer of the project. The action taken yesterday allows San Gabriel Water and Power, whose principal is William Barkett, to obtain up to $20 million in financing to proceed. It was revealed that Industry had initially authorized accepting the debt on $5 million in loans and later $11.5 million in loans.
Industry Councilman Newell Ruggles abstained from the vote, saying he had not been provided with enough information on the project to make an informed decision.
Documentation in the agenda packet for Thursday’s meeting that was made publicly available 72 hours before the meeting provided the first comprehensive synopsis of the project, showing how advanced the planning has been. This runs counter to Industry officials’ previous claims that such specifics were not known. Moreover, it might establish the Industry City Council engaged in violations of the Brown Act – California’s open public meeting law – in that the preparations had to have been considered and ratified by the council some time ago, and no public notice of that action was ever given.
Acting on the information that became available on Monday, the cities of Chino Hills and Diamond Bar hastily drew up written objections to the original lease agreement and amendments. Chino Hills, through its attorney, Mark Hensley, called upon Industry officials to suspend payments to San Gabriel Valley Water and Power and put the project on hold pending a review of the project and its impacts under the auspices of the California Environmental Quality Act.
Chino Hills Mayor Ray Marquez told the Sentinel he thought Ruggles’ unwillingness to vote on the matter was revelatory. “I feel for their council,” Marquez said. “It seems they’re not getting all the information, even in closed session.”
Marquez said the City of Industry’s withholding of the information to this point was inexcusable.
“What took them so long to be transparent?” he asked.
Chino Hills and Diamond Bar would yet have land use authority on any project to be built. On the Chino Hills portion of the project, a zone change, variance and general plan amendment would need to be obtained to accommodate a solar project. The city council has the authority to grant those, but it would also have the authority to limit the project in terms of scope and intensity. One piece of leverage that the City of Industry possesses is that it could make the assertion that public purpose uses have to be accommodated, and that the solar farm is a public purpose use.
Mark Gutglueck

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