More than 70 residents attended the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday to participate in a workshop on the Renewable Energy General Plan Amendment that identifies 14 areas of the county as suitable for renewable energy development.
A majority of the residents who addressed the board pointed out that they are not opposed to solar projects in the county, or even the idea that the Planning Department should update the General Plan to help guide future development. Their problem is the current proposed plan, which, if approved, would identify 640,000 acres of Inyo as “appropriate” for industrial-scale wind and solar development.
The fear is that the General Plan amendment will be considered an invitation for large-scale developers to build on undeveloped lands in Inyo County in order to meet state-mandated goals for renewable energy development.
Tuesday’s workshop began with a review of the General Plan amendment process, and, specifically, some history behind the renewable energy portion of that plan.
Inyo County Associate Planner Cathreen Richards explained that, because 98 percent of the county’s land is managed by state or federal agencies or the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Inyo County has little regulatory authority over development on those lands. But what the county does have is a General Plan that the state and federal government is required to take into consideration.
“The state and federal agencies must adhere to local general plans,” Richards said. “One thing people have been asking is ‘Why can’t we just say no?’ The problem is just saying no wouldn’t matter on 98 percent of the land. These are the difficult realities we’re faced with.”
Basically, with the state demanding that 33 percent of California’s energy be generated through renewable sources by 2020, Inyo needs a plan to guide renewable development, because the county cannot legally outlaw these projects on state, federal or LADWP land. But, according to Richards, if the General Plan identifies areas that are suitable for that kind of development, those agencies will be forced to take that plan into consideration.
Richards explained that the county approved a REGPA in 2011, but the Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity threatened a lawsuit, saying the county should conduct an Environmental Impact Report before identifying property as suitable for renewable energy development.
Ultimately, the board rescinded the plan, saying it did not have the funding to fight the lawsuit in court.
In 2013, the Planning Department received a grant from the California Energy Commission that allowed for an EIR on the amendment, and the process began again, with several public meetings in 2013.
On Feb. 26, the Inyo County Planning Commission reviewed a draft of the REGPA, and heard comments from 31 residents who were opposed to the draft update as presented.
One Independence resident, Jim Stroh – who had participated in the original 2011 REGPA process – spoke in favor of this REGPA at the Planning Commission meeting, and again at Tuesday’s workshop.
Despite the overwhelming opposition to the REGPA, the Planning Commission approved the draft document as presented, and forwarded it to the Board of Supervisors for review.
Before discussing approval of the draft (scheduled for April 1), the board elected to hold a workshop this past Tuesday and hear how residents feel about the plan.
Before accepting those comments, Richards pointed out that “staff is not doing this work to invite renewable” energy development. Rather, it is a way to tell developers where Inyo County would like to see projects happen, and where land should be left untouched.
Independence/Los Angeles resident Brian Kostors, who manages the website deepestvalley.com that has gathered more than 800 signatures on a petition against the draft REGPA, said the Planning Department’s intent, and the end result of the REGPA, could be very different.
“I agree that not having a plan is a bad thing … Staff had no intent of inviting development, but that doesn’t mean that won’t happen,” Kostors said.
Bishop resident Philip Anaya pointed out that the CEC grant the Planning Department is operating under is designed for the “promotion” of renewable energy development.
Several residents pointed out that the U.S. Highway 395 Scenic Byway is one of the most important aspects of Inyo’s tourist-driven economy. Bishop resident Andy Selters pointed out that both the LADWP and Inyo County leaders have traditionally refused to permit billboards along U.S. 395 because of visual impacts. An industrial solar ranch in the Owens Valley would come with visual impacts as well.
Gann Matsuda of the Manzanar Committee said the impacts of the REGPA would be “economic suicide” because visitors come to the Owens Valley to escape their urban homes. As a Southern California resident, he pointed out that he could go trout fishing closer to home if he wanted to fish in an urban or industrial setting.
Matsuda added that the Manzanar Committee has gone on record opposing the REGPA because the Owens Valley Renewable Energy Development Area – one of 14 included in the amendment – is directly across the highway from Manzanar and would impact the visitor experience at the National Historic Site. “The reason the Manzanar site was selected is because there’s nothing around for miles and miles. It was a psychological weapon. Isolation as a means of control,” Matsuda said. “If you allow this, you basically take away Manzanar’s ability to teach that critical part of our history.”
Many residents specifically pointed out that the Owens Valley REDA is flawed because it is too large and includes cultural sites and the scenic byway.
Dave Wagoner said the state’s move towards renewable energy development and the county’s efforts to control local development “is a noble goal, but development of the valley floor is a price too high to pay.”
Los Angeles resident Tom Budlong agreed. “I’m mystified as to why Inyo County seems so anxious to sacrifice these vistas,” said Budlong, who drove up for Tuesday’s workshop. “It’s economic suicide – sanctioned vandalism. You’re thinking like bureaucrats, thinking why we can’t. I wish you’d hold a vote and lead the charge against. Please don’t destroy this place.”
Representatives from the Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity – the two agencies that threatened to sue over the 2011 REGPA – also spoke. Both agreed that the draft General Plan amendment remains flawed and should be scaled down.
The Board of Supervisors will meet April 1 to discuss the draft REGPA. At that time, local leaders can choose to accept the plan as proposed, amend it, or send it back to the Planning Department for revisions.