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More than one Inyo County resident wondered aloud Tuesday if the Inyo County Planning Department was playing an April Fools Day prank when it presented an updated draft Renewable Energy General Plan Amendment to the Board of Supervisors.
After months of defending their draft REGPA in the face of significant public outcry, planning staff presented the Board of Supervisors with a new draft alternative for the REGPA that reduces the amount of land available for industrial-scale renewable energy development and uses careful wording to ensure that the county is not soliciting renewable energy projects.
A number of residents and visitors to the area who have openly opposed the previously proposed draft REGPA as overreaching and flawed said they were relieved and proud to see democracy at work.
About an hour before the board met to discuss the REGPA, the Owens Valley Committee hosted a press conference on the Independence Courthouse steps to protest the proposed document and urge local leaders to take a harder look at the draft plan to ensure the Owens Valley doesnâ€™t get overrun by industrial-scale solar farms.
Speakers at the press conference included several residents who later shared in the board chambers, as well as Alan Bacock of the Big Pine Paiute Tribe of the Owens Valley, OVC President Mary Roper and Bruce Embrey of the Manzanar Committee.
The boardâ€™s REGPA discussion opened with Planning Staff presenting the new draft, which, according to Associate Planner Cathreen Richards, incorporated most of the comments residents provided over the past two months.
Richards said the REGPA is a response to state and federal mandates that utility companies produce 33 percent of their energy through renewable sources. Richards explained that, because â€śInyo has excellent solar energy development potential,â€ť staff believes that local communities can expect an influx in renewable energy development proposals in the coming years.
That reality, paired with the fact that 98 percent of Inyo County is owned and managed by state and federal entities and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, means Inyo could be left in the dark as solar developers begin eying the area.
One way around that, according to Planning Director Josh Hart, is to create a General Plan amendment that addresses renewable energy development. Hart explained that state and federal agencies are required to take local governmentâ€™s plans into account when developing land within that governmentâ€™s jurisdiction.
The draft REGPA presented to the Inyo County Planning Commission earlier this year amidst protests from dozens of community members included 14 Renewable Energy Development Areas. The idea, Hart said earlier this year, was to confine any potential development to those 14 areas.
But residents from as far north as Lee Vining and as far south as Los Angeles, said the REDAs were too large, included too much untouched land, impacted too many views that draw tourists to the area and in many cases overlapped the Lower Owens River Project or included culturally sensitive sites.
The 14 REDAs in the draft included areas of Laws, Fish Lake Valley, Deep Springs, the Owens Valley, Owens Lake, Centennial Flats/Darwin, Rose Valley, Pearsonville, Chicago Valley, Charlston View and Sandy Valley, totaling 969 square miles, or 620,120 acres.
Staff had developed two alternatives to that plan, a more intense REGPA, and a less intense REGPA. Residents had favored the less intense alternative, but felt that plan was still too flawed to implement.
On Tuesday, in response to comments the Planning Department received from residents, Richards presented a fourth alternative (AKA the Less-Less Intensive, the Less2 Alterative or the â€śPink Planâ€ť). The least intensive plan presented on Tuesday reduced the size of some REDAs and eliminated others, including the Death Valley Junction, Chicago Valley and Owens Valley REDAs. The Owens Valley REDA is the location of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Powerâ€™s controversial, proposed Southern Owens Valley Solar Ranch.
The Less-Less Intense proposal includes a total of 138 square miles of REDAs (down from 328 square miles, proposed in the original less intense alternative).
Planning staff also included a cap and phasing scheme in the new REGPA that limits renewable development to less than 1 percent of Inyoâ€™s total land â€“ 10,227 square miles.
Richards said staff also cleaned up language in the draft document, eliminating the word â€śminimizeâ€ť in regards to impacts of projects. Rather than saying developers should â€śminimizeâ€ť impacts to local viewsheds, economy and wild, undeveloped spaces, the new alternatives states that those impacts should be â€śavoided.â€ť
Richards also said language was added to ensure potential developers consider projects on â€śalready disturbedâ€ť land such as the Los Angeles Aqueduct or abandoned farm land, before considering untouched landscapes.
Richards said potential developers will also be required to minimize water use and mitigate any impacts to Inyo County services.
The Board of Supervisors, and the 90-plus residents in attendance, almost unanimously supported the new, Less-Less Intensive alternative, with the caveat that any draft plan will need further refinement.
Before taking public input on the new proposed draft, Fourth District Supervisor Mark Tillemans said the proposed Less-Less Intensive REGPA is a plan he feels comfortable working off of.
Fifth District Supervisor Matt Kingsley agreed. â€śThis is a real issue that will effect our county for a couple decades, at least,â€ť Kingsley said. â€śThis opportunity is why people get into politics. Inyo is on the cutting edge of renewable energy policy. Weâ€™re in a spot where not very many people have gone before. Iâ€™m impressedâ€ť with staffâ€™s willingness to implement comments from the public, the boardâ€™s ability to receive that input and the public for participating.
Second District Supervisor Jeff Griffiths said he was happy with the new proposal and reduced REDAs and especially the cap staff has implemented to ensure that any projects that may come to the area are a reasonable size. â€śThat cap is probably going to be really important later on,â€ť he said.
Griffiths said the Less-Less alternative is something he feels most of the community can support, or at least be â€śOKâ€ť with.
First District Supervisor Linda Arcularius said she had some concerns that the Less-Less alternative could infringe on private property rights if a property owner wants to build a large-scale renewable energy project on their land. â€śInitially, private property was included because there was interest in development on private property,â€ť Arcularius said. Kingsley said that he is aware of a landowner in Chicago Valley who had expressed interest in renewable energy development, but ultimately, he feels that property owner would be comfortable with any decision the board makes.
The 90-plus residents in attendance agreed with the board.
â€śI think Iâ€™m feeling much better,â€ť Sidney Quinn said. â€śYou took a lot of wind out of my sailsâ€ť by listening to the concerns of residents and amending the plan to address those concerns, she told Planning staff.
â€śIâ€™m happy to see what happened today,â€ť Bishop resident Harry Williams said. â€śThe worldâ€™s problems came to Inyo this year when we had state and federal mandates pushed upon us. But you listened to the people. You gave me hope. I got to see democracy at its best here in Inyo.â€ť
Paul Fretheim said he could sleep easier knowing staff is working on a plan that was written with input from the community and another said she no longer has a knot in her stomach because she feels her concerns were not only heard, but addressed in the new draft REGPA.
â€śThanks for this,â€ť Fretheim said. â€śMaybe I can sleep at night.â€ť
While many concerns are addressed in the new draft plan, the Board of Supervisors, Planning staff and residents at Tuesdayâ€™s meeting unanimously recognized that there is still room for improvement, and plenty of time to make those improvements.
Mark Bagley, representing the Sierra Club, which threatened to sue the county over its original 2011 REGPA, said the Sierra Club is â€śpleasedâ€ť to see the Less-Less Intensive alternative, noting that â€śPlanning has been very responsiveâ€ť to the communityâ€™s concerns. â€śWe think this is a good starting point, but there are still environmental concerns. The Owens Lake Delta habitat (which is protected under the Long-Term Water Agreement and Lower Owens River Plan) is still included. Weâ€™re not going to let that area become developed,â€ť he said.
Bagley and several other residents reminded the board that the 33 percent renewables goal the state is requiring is a mandate for utility companies and not the county. L.A. resident Tom Budlong pointed out that lobbyists in Sacramento have removed distributed rooftop solar from the equation on that mandate, and he and several other speakers urged the Board of Supervisors to appeal to Sacramento to have that changed.
â€śI really like the Pink Plan,â€ť Mary Roper, president of the Owens Valley Committee, said. â€śCEQA can address our concerns about individual areas.â€ť
In its direction to staff, the Board of Supervisors asked that all wind energy development be removed from the plan, per a request from the U.S. Military, which runs operations in the Owens Valley. Several residents also made the request that wind turbines be outlawed, as they are a hazard for birds and bats.
Planning staff will spend this week refining the Less-Less Intensive plan further, and will present it to the Board of Supervisors again next week before embarking on the CEQA process.
Once the board signs off on the revised draft REGPA, the Planning Department will release a Notice of Preparation on the project, which includes three more public hearings.
From there, staff will develop a draft environmental impact statement this summer. That process also includes time for public input before a final EIR is developed this fall.
Following the final EIR, Hart said staff will make an update to the REGPA before it returns to the Board of Supervisors for final approval.
While thrilled with the much scaled-down REGPA presented Tuesday, attendees still noted that opponents of large-scale industrial solar development need to remain vigilant â€“ not only as the county proceeds with the CEQA process but as utilities and developers begin looking for ways to transmit the energy they produce.