County leaders on Tuesday agreed to postpone a March 18 vote on a General Plan amendment that many fear will open the flood gates to large-scale, industrial solar and wind renewable energy development.
Any decision by the Board of Supervisors on whether to approve the draft Renewable Energy General Plan Amendment has been put on hold until April 1, in favor of a presentation on March 18 by the Planning Department.
Planning Director Josh Hart said this will allow for more time to educate the public and clear up misinformation being circulated in the community; REGPA opponents say the delay will allow for more residents to weigh in on a proposal with potentially devastating consequences for Inyoâs desert environs and tourist-based economy.
Also on Tuesday, the board approved a letter to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, requesting representatives from the
utility appear before the Board of Supervisors to update residents and the board on L.A.âs controversial Southern Owens Valley Solar Ranch project.
Already on the drawing board prior to the countyâs release of the REGPA, LADWPâs proposal to locate a 1,200-acre, 200 megagwatt solar project near the Manzanar National Historic Site has generated a fire storm of criticism from locals and visitors who not only abhor the project location, but see the entire project as the start of piecemeal industrialization of the Owens Valley. Itâs a fear that seems to have been heightened by the countyâs subsequent release of the draft REGPA.
The board also took public comment from residents expressing concern about both the proposed solar ranch and the Planning Commissionâs recent unpopular decision to approve REGPA and forward it to the board for further consideration.
LADWPâs project involves constructing a 1,200-acre, 200 megawatt solar ranch south of Independence and east of Manzanar National Historic Site, with 1-2 million photovoltaic panels, a 300,000 square-foot substation, 3,000 square-foot maintenance building, various access roads, fencing and other security features â all over a five-and-a-half year period starting with the substation and moving on to the solar arrays in mid-2016.
The REGPA is a General Plan amendment that identifies 11 âzonesâ in Inyo County â including LADWPâs proposed solar ranch site â as appropriate for industrial-scale renewable energy development.
Hart said that, with only .5 percent of Inyoâs land included in the REGPA, there has been a lot of misinformation and misconceptions about the General Plan amendment. And, when paired with a lack of information from the LADWP on the Solar Ranch project, many residents are confused about what is happening with renewable energy development in the county. In response to concerns about solar development among residents, Hart said the Planning Department compiled a list of frequently asked questions â along with the answers to those questions â that will be posted online.
Hart also said it is a good time to touch base with the LADWP to find out where the utility is at with its solar ranch project and allow residents to voice concerns. He recommended that the Board of Supervisors approve a letter to the department requesting a meeting and presentation from the LADWP on its project.
Donald Mooney, an attorney for the Owens Valley Committee, and Bishop resident Philip Anaya both asked that the Board of Supervisors directly ask the LADWP to be prepared to discuss how power will be transmitted from the solar ranch to Southern California. According to Mooney, there is a queue for use of transmission lines, and stiff competition among solar developers for priority placement in that queue. Anaya and Mooney both said that, because the solar ranch was originally proposed at a different location, LADWP may have lost its place in line.
Inyo resident Dave Wagner also asked that the board ask LADWP to be prepared to discuss how it will address comments and concerns residents have raised about the project. âA number of comments were made in Independence in December about the Draft Environmental Review and I want to see how theyâre going to respond to those comments,â Wagner said, explaining that many feel the Draft Environmental Impact Report did not adequately address cultural resources at the proposed solar ranch site, or how the project will impact the Lower Owens River project and recreation plan. âThe DEIR could go to the (LADWP) Water Commission without us ever knowing,â Wagner said.
Darwin resident Judyth Greenberg said the letter to LADWP should ask the department to be prepared to explain how the project will benefit Inyo County.
At this point in the meeting, Fourth District Supervisor Mark Tillemans said he had a growing concern that too many demands in a letter requesting dialogue could scare the department away.
âWe donât want to chase them off,â Tillemans said. âI would rather have them here than give them a laundry list of questions they donât want to answer.â
County Administrative Officer Kevin Carunchio agreed, pointing out that the LADWP has no obligation to appear before the Board of Supervisors.
âUntil we get them up here, theyâre not answering anything,â Second District Supervisor Jeff Griffiths said, explaining that his hope is that the department will be prepared to answer any and all questions the board and residents may have about the project or the environmental review.
Tillemans agreed, saying that he doesnât want LADWP representatives to arrive without answers. Ultimately, the board decided to send a letter requesting a meeting in the near future and directed staff to follow up with a list of topics to be discussed if and when the LADWP agrees to meet.
Another concern residents brought up was the format of the meeting. One speaker asked that the meeting be held in the evening or on a weekend, so the working public would have an opportunity to participate. Skandar Reid of Bishop and Mary Roper of Independence both suggested that the board stage the meeting as a potluck as an incentive to the LADWP.
The board felt that the meeting should be held after business hours as part of the regular Board of Supervisors agenda, in a formal, government-to-government setting.
The board also said the discussion should be agendized as a presentation from the department, rather than a workshop, which will allow for dialogue between the public and the board.
Following the discussion about the LADWP solar project, the board re-opened public comment to allow residents to voice concerns about the unpopular REGPA.
Southern Inyo resident Jane McDonald suggested that the county hold off on its REGPA decision to see what the LADWP has planned for the Solar Ranch. âThe REGPA may give LADWP the impression the county is signing off on the solar ranchâ because it identifies the Solar Ranch site as a renewable energy development area, McDonald said.
Carunchio pointed out that the REGPA document coming before the board is only a draft, and final approval of the amendment wonât be considered for 6 to 7 months.
First District Supervisor Linda Arcularius added that holding off on the REGPA decision until after LADWP moves forward with the solar ranch âwould pre-suppose the boardâs decisionâ on the General Plan amendment and the board should handle the two projects separately.
Anaya said that, with a deadline looming for the REGPA, the Planning Department has ârushed to judgement. The LORP and the Long-Term Water Agreement have not been considered by the Planning Department. There is little foresight and little logic in the plan.â
Following that comment, Hart and Fifth District Supervisor Matt Kingsley said residents have been too hard on the Planning Department and Planning Commissioners who approved the draft REGPA on Feb. 26. âItâs counter-productive when we have these attacks on the Planning Department and Planning Commissioners,â Kingsley said. âItâs important for the public to separate out what the plans are. Everyone is operating in the best interest of the county.â
Arcularius, who thanked the Planning Commission for doing a difficult job as volunteers, pointed out that draft plans are released so that residents can review a plan before it goes to the Board of Supervisors for final approval, and the comments residents are providing will guide local leaders when the time comes to make a decision.
âThis is very preliminary. Itâs what a draft does,â Arcularius said.