As California utility companies work to achieve the state-mandated 33 percent renewable energy goal, Inyo County is struggling with the implications.
County leaders began exploring Inyo County’s solar potential and the impacts those developments could have on local landscapes, wildlife and people four years ago. Ultimately, the board adopted Title 21 in 2010 in an attempt to allow the county to maintain some control over the expected renewable energy boom.
Initially, the prospect of solar development was thought to be a great step for the environment that would come with a benefit to the local economy, bringing new jobs and new property tax revenue.
But those hopes were quickly dashed, when the Inyo County Board of Supervisors realized that solar developments don’t pay property tax (a state initiative designed to promote development of renewable energy sources) and aren’t required to travel through the normal county channels to pull building permits.
Regulation and oversight of the projects is funneled through the California Energy Commission and California Public Utilities Commission.
County Administrative Officer Kevin Carunchio said the county basically realized it had very little land-use authority when it came to renewable energy development and ultimately, the project would cost the county through the use of public services such as police, fire and emergency medical response.
“The county had very little authority and our first effort to become relevant was to have legal staff put together Title 21,” a renewable energy ordinance that shapes county policy on renewable energy development, Carunchio said.
The one leg Inyo County has to stand on is the fact that state and federal agencies, as well as the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power – which, combined, manage 98 percent of Inyo County’s land – are required to take local government’s plans into consideration when developing property within that local government’s jurisdiction.
Under Title 21, anyone planning to build a renewable energy facility is required to work with the county on the project in addition to going through the CEC and CPUC.
County Attorney Greg James explained that there are three ways for a developer to proceed with a project: they can apply for a renewable energy permit through the County Planning Commission; work with county Planning Department staff on a renewable energy impact determination; or develop a renewable energy agreement.
“The goal is to protect the health, safety and welfare” of the county, James said, explaining that, through the Title 21 process, the county has the ability to regulate development, recoup costs for public services and ensure that all projects are built in accordance to the Inyo County General Plan. “General Plan consistency is of foremost importance,” James said.
But whether Title 21 applies to LADWP, which maintains sovereignty on its Inyo County landholdings, “is the $64,000 question,” James said. “That determination would have to come from the courts.”
James added that the state considers wildlife a part of the public trust, which is the responsibility of local governments. “That is the hook that may allow the county to prevail in court,” James said.
Title 21 also states that Inyo County has authority over the development of transmission corridors, which are typically regulated at the federal level.
While Title 21 is a set of basic guidelines for renewable energy development, it does need a General Plan as a companion, because the whole idea is to ensure that the county’s General Plan is followed as developers eye Inyo.
Earlier this month, Inyo Planning staff presented a draft Renewable Energy General Plan that has gained traction with residents.
The next step is to further refine that plan, and begin an environmental review on the document. That revised draft plan will be presented to the board in early May.