The public comments from some of the 70-plus residents present at Wednesday’s Planning Commission meeting in Independence showed overwhelming disapproval of the draft General Plan amendment on renewable energy.
All but one of the 32 speakers offering public comments over three hours strongly opposed the Inyo County
Planning Department’s request for approval to send the draft Renewable Energy General Plan Amendment to the county Board of Supervisors for adoption.
Nevertheless, after hours of discussion and public comments, the planning commission approved sending the draft amendment forward by a 4-1 vote, and received jeers and shouts of disapproval from some attending the meeting. Commissioner Bill Stoll was the single “No” vote, saying he was uncomfortable with his level of understanding on the solar energy issues and that additional informational public workshops on solar energy generation would be very helpful.
All of the commissioners had at some point during the meeting acknowledged that they were not very knowledgeable about solar energy issues and felt there was much to learn. However they said they felt compelled, despite opposition from those at the meeting, to send the draft amendment on to the Board of Supervisors for its views, comments and guidance.
The draft amendment on renewable energy policy to the General Plan is an attempt to designate areas within Inyo County with the most likely “potential” for renewable energy production. Many at the meeting expressed opposition to any large industrial-scale solar energy and wind energy development anywhere in Inyo County.
Not everyone was opposed to solar power generation. Paul Fretheim of Independence shared a presentation showing alternatives employed in other areas where solar photovoltaic panels and sheets can be installed on rooftops of many commercial buildings and even as a covering over the aqueduct with solar panels rather than in large, industrialized areas. Others were amenable to other locations than near the Manzanar National Historic Site.
If was repeatedly stated by Inyo County Senior Planner Cathreen Richards and County Counsel Dana Crom that any plans on any renewable energy project, whether the draft amendment is adopted or not, will still require environmental impact studies, including the proposed LADWP solar project near the Manzanar National Historic Site.
Both Crom and Planning Department Director Josh Hart told the commission that without a plan on renewable energy, solar energy plants could be located almost anywhere within the valley provided there were no restrictions or guidelines established to prevent them. They noted that Inyo County has no authority over 98 percent of the land in Inyo County owned by the federal government, state and City of Los Angeles.
Public comment included poetry and prose, wildlife and several comments that the Planning Department wrote a misleading report that ignored how people attending earlier workshops on the plan truly felt.
Eva Poole-Gilson of Keough’s Hot Springs, a local educator and writer, read a short passage from a book that she wrote 26 years ago as a young woman new to the area describing what a marvelous change the scenic views and rural living was from the hustle and bustle of city life. She encouraged the commissioners to not let the beauty and “specialness” of the area be spoiled by allowing large projects that would mar the viewshed and strongly advocated that a series of informative renewable energy workshops for the public and public officials before a decision is made on the draft amendment. This was a recurrent theme that many in attendance suggested, including several commissioners.
Brian Kostors of Independence noted that the people who attended workshops leading up to the draft amendment were overwhelming opposed to large-scale industrial projects yet the wording in the draft plan seemed to imply public support, which he felt was not true. This was repeated several times with other speakers: that there is no clear support for the energy projects by Inyo residents.
Several spoke up on the wildlife and plant life. Cindy Kamler, founder and director for Eastern Sierra Wildlife Care, said, “Displaced wildlife risk predation resulting in death and even possible extinction.”
A half-dozen Japanese Americans from Southern California spoke in opposition to the plan as contrary to the establishment of the Manzanar National Historic Site’s purpose to honor those sent there, educate the public on the dangers of intolerance, and give visitors a sense of what it was like to be kept in an isolated area. Later Colin Smith, the acting director of Manzanar, seconded their views and added other concerns the National Park Service has in other areas of Inyo County.
Noting that “areas designated for potential projects would impact the entire Lower Owens River Project,” Mike Prather said “LORP was designed to bring back river habitat and the map included in the plan as ‘suitable for solar for industrial development’ runs counter to that goal.”
Kanti Sahara of Torrance traveled 300 miles to speak to the commissioners about Los Angeles’ own solar energy regulations and plans, noting that Angelinos would most likely not put solar panels on their roofs unless forced to do so because of the expense.
Stephanie Nitahara, former director for the Japanese American Citizens League, submitted letters from other organizations also opposing the LADWP Solar Ranch project. Nitahara told commissioners that “Owens Valley must retain its current cultural integrity not just for the beauty and nature that was already expressed here … and this site is a stark reminder of the dark point in history where Japanese Americans were incarcerated at Manzanar.”
Gann Matsuda with the Manzanar Committee spoke about the history of the camp, saying that the isolation of those sent there was deliberate and the desolation surrounding the camp was an important historical part of that experience that would be lost if the solar ranch project proposed by LADWP was built.
Traci Ishigo spoke of the importance of the Manzanar experience for young Japanese-Americans, while Nancy Takayama, spoke on behalf of her parents, “survivors of Manzanar” noting that she “does not object to the solar farms, I just don’t want it near Manzanar.”
Jim Stroh of Independence was the sole speaker in support of the General Plan amendment. “I urge the Planning Commission to move forward and get this plan to the Board of Supervisors.” In spite of his view being different from others, he received polite applause.
Dwight Deakin spoke on behalf of the Navy and Air Force, both of which use Inyo County and the Owens Valley for test flight space. He praised Planning Department staff for working closely with the military and noted that the military is fully supportive of renewable energy although there are concerns related to some renewable energy technologies that might be used.
Deakin said there are three prevalent energy technologies: PV solar, solar thermal and wind turbines. PV installations, whether flat or vertical, do not present much of problem to the military other than mild, but manageable clutter on radar screens, he said. Solar thermal was a different matter altogether as the military uses infrared weapons that seek out hot things – and solar thermal plants are very hot. After the laughter died down, he went on to explain that wind turbines present problems with obstruction (i.e., a threat to airplanes) and the more difficult issue of radar interference.
April Zrelak objected to the “artificial deadline” established by the Planning Department noting that the 358-page plan document was released only a few days ago and she asked that workshops be provided to give the public a change to further digest the details. In response, Planning Director Josh Hart said that would happen during the environmental review process.
The politeness shown to Stroh, the sole speaker who was an unabashedly proponent of solar energy development, was not always in evidence as the amendment was presented by Planning Department staff during the first hour of the meeting. Comments were being made by several in the room – questioning staff integrity and findings in the middle of their presentation – loudly enough to be heard by staff and others in the room.
Angry shouts and jeers erupted from the audience after the public comment portion ended during the discussion of the issue among themselves, and as the vote was taken. The Sheriff’s Department was called to send a deputy to the meeting to keep the peace.
The draft REPGA plan will go before the Board of Supervisors on March 18, at which time the public will be afforded another opportunity to provide comment.
For those not able to attend the meeting, comments and letters from the public have been posted on the Inyo County Planning Department site at www.inyoplanning.org . It is not too late to send in comments. Comments can be sent for inclusion through email at firstname.lastname@example.org  or by calling (760) 878-0263.