County planners will meet Wednesday to discuss the future of solar development in Inyo County and exactly where any new, large-scale solar or wind farms should be located if more developers set their sights on Inyo County.
In the wake of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power proposing a widely unpopular 1,200-acre solar ranch east of U.S. Highway 395 across from Manzanar, the Inyo Planning Department is moving forward with a General Plan amendment that will identify areas of the county that local leaders feel are appropriate for renewable energy development.
Despite the backlash LADWP has received for the location of its solar project, and the public comments and letters to the editor overwhelmingly opposed to the destruction of the viewshed and valley floor, the county’s General Plan amendment identifies the land east of U.S. Highway 395 across from Manzanar as appropriate for development.
In the Renewable Energy General Plan Amendment, these areas are called Renewable Energy Development Areas and there are 11 in all: areas along U.S. Highway 395 from Independence to Pearsonville, with additional areas near Laws, Deep Springs, Death Valley Junction, Panamint Valley, east of Chicago Valley and near Sandy Valley.
Planning Director Josh Hart said Monday that residents shouldn’t view the REGPA as identifying land for large-scale solar, but as identifying land that is not inappropriate for large-scale solar.
“Right now, we don’t have a plan, at all, so (a developer) can go anywhere” and build a renewable energy project. “We’ve never identified areas as suitable, we are identifying areas where we would consider development,” Hart said.
Updating the county’s General Plan to address renewable energy development is a saga that began in 2010. In April 2011, the Board of Supervisors approved a Renewable Energy General Plan Amendment. That amendment was rescinded in November 2011 following a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club that claimed that an environmental review was necessary for the county to legally adopt the General Plan Amendment.
Though local leaders felt the 2011 General Plan Amendment was legal, the county did not have the financial resources to defend itself against the lawsuit, and rescinded the amendment.
In July 2013, Inyo County applied for and was awarded a grant from the California Energy Commission to work on a new General Plan Amendment. The new Renewable Energy General Plan Amendment will also include a Programmatic Environmental Impact Report, which the Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club called for in their lawsuit against the county regarding the 2011 General Plan amendment.
Hart said the PEIR could provide California Environmental Quality Act clearance for renewable energy developments, if the project plan is consistent with the county General Plan. When a project is proposed, “we’ll go through a checklist to see if it is significantly different from the PEIR. If it’s not, the developer could move forward,” Hart said.
County planning staff has begun work on the amendment, and will present it to the Planning Commission at its regular meeting at 10 a.m. Wednesday in the County Administrative Center in Independence.
At that meeting, Planning Department staff will present the solar overlay boundaries proposed in the Renewable Energy General Plan Amendment. Essentially, Hart said anything outside of the identified boundaries is viewed by the county as inappropriate for renewable energy development.
“We’re going through a process, so the outcome can be very different from the amendment that was approved in 2011,” Hart said, adding that the Planning Department held a series of public meetings last November and December to gather information on what residents would like to see in the Renewable Energy General Plan Amendment.
According to a staff report, those meetings and workshops included a staff review of both the General Plan and a background report – the latter of which emphasized criteria and policies from the 2011 amendment which “was developed based on outreach to local, regional, state, tribal and national stakeholders, government agencies and the interested public.”
One resident who attended those meetings, Jane McDonald, said that the conclusion the Planning Department drew in regards to solar energy development is at odds with the opinions residents shared.
“When asked, the overwhelming majority of participants heartily supported solar development on rooftops, over the aqueduct, or perhaps on Owens or China Lake, but were vehemently opposed to the placement of industrial solar mega-developments on undisturbed land,” McDonald said in a Letter to the Editor (see Pg. 4). “At meeting after meeting, I have heard residents express grave concern about the industrialization of the valley and the impact of such industry on our bread and butter: tourism.”
Likewise, the Manzanar Committee, which was responsible for Manzanar getting federal protection as a historic site and has gone on record opposing the LADWP Solar Ranch, said it is “vehemently opposed to any development that would interfere with the operation, goals and purpose of the Manzanar National Historic Site, including forever marring its viewshed. As such, we strongly oppose Inyo County’s Renewable Energy Development Areas, as defined in your 2013 Renewable Energy General Plan Amendment, which would open the door to large-scale renewable energy projects in the Owens Valley.”
A statement from the Manzanar Committee goes on to say, “we fail to understand the logic behind allowing large-scale solar or wind power projects in the Owens Valley, where your mostly pristine, open lands, along with forest areas, beautiful lakes and streams and other outdoor wonders, would be destroyed forever by massive renewable energy facilities. With Inyo County’s economy based on tourism, this makes no sense at all.”
Hart said that residents have made it clear to the county that there are concerns about solar development impacting the viewscape of the Owens Valley, which is driving the Renewable Energy General Plan Amendment effort which he says will ultimately protect areas from solar development by identifying other areas that the community and local leaders feel are appropriate for development.
“This is a way to be proactive, and not reactive. There will be many more public meetings and a California Environmental Quality Act process,” Hart said. “The grant ends in early 2015, we’re pretty early in the process, so there’s plenty of time for input.”