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County repeals solar amendment under threat of Sierra Club suit

August 25, 2011

Due to the treat of a lawsuit by the Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity, Inyo County repealed an update to the General Plan that identified specific areas residents and county leaders thought would be suitable for renewable energy projects. File photo

Under the threat of a lawsuit, Inyo County was forced to repeal a General Plan Amendment identifying suitable areas for renewable energy projects Tuesday.
Upon hearing of the General Plan amendment, the Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit against the county, claiming that an Environmental Impact Report is necessary before the county can include preferred sites for renewable energy development in the General Plan.
In preparing the amendment, county staff filed a negative declaration of environmental impacts for the General Plan Amendment, and conducted site specific studies to determine what property in the county is best suited for renewable energy development.
“Based on the sensitive location of many (and exceptionally large footprint) of the proposed renewable energy areas, the Inyo County General Plan Amendment poses unusually adverse biological impacts to a host of species,” a letter from the Sierra Club to the Inyo County Planning Commission states.
In a letter to the county, the Wilderness Society stated, “We do not find any supporting evidence that would allow for a finding that the proposed action would not potentially result in significant environmental impacts under the provisions of CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act).”
Planning Director Josh Hart said that any developer wishing to build a renewable energy project would be required to conduct an EIR before work begins. He added that the General Plan Amendment, which was approved in April after the Board of Supervisors held a public hearing to gather input, would not create, begin or solicit renewable energy projects, and only identifies potential areas where the county would support development of such projects.
County Administrator Kevin Carunchio said the county’s intention with the General Plan Amendment was to “provide another layer of environmental protection” by having local government, which represents local residents, identify and direct potential project proponents to areas that would have little impact on the local environment.
“This is an example of environmental companies, and these are companies, not grassroots organizations, stripping away a layer of environmental protection,” Carunchio said.
Rather than fight the lawsuit, which would cost the county thousands of dollars in lawyer’s fees, the Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club agreed to drop the case if Inyo agreed to repeal the General Plan Amendment.
County Counsel Randy Keller said the county would likely lose the case if it went to court, saying the standard for proving the need for an EIR is very low.
“We could have 10 experts saying there is no impact, and they could have one saying there is, and there is a very large chance that we would lose,” Keller said.
If the county attempted to fight the case and lost, it may be responsible for paying attorney’s fees for the petitioners.
On the other hand, if the county won the lawsuit, it would not be able to petition for attorney’s fees and would still bear the burden of litigation.
“It may look like a waste, but the study is still available to the public, the board and developers,” Third District Supervisor Rick Pucci said.
Second District Supervisor and Board Chair Susan Cash said the county is not admitting any wrong-doing by repealing the amendment, but wishes only to avoid costly litigation.

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