Commission narrowly recommends solar facility

After a wide-ranging discussion the Lake County Planning Commission at its meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 31, voted 3-2 to recommend approval for the proposed Blue Marmot Solar Facility north of Lakeview. The matter now moves to the Lake County Commissioners who will have the final vote.

After hearing initial arguments by EDP Renewables and those against the project, the Planning Commission asked that all arguments in favor, against, or part of EDP Renewables’ rebuttal be submitted before the next meeting. This will allow enough time for the Planning Commission to review the documents, and for EDP Renewables to submit its rebuttal to the arguments made by members of the public.

One of the questions the Commissioners debated was the meaning of OAR 660-004-0020(2) and OAR 660-33-0130, which cover whether projects will significantly change or increase the costs of accepted farm practices on surrounding farm lands. Planning Commissioner Ben Holderman, who voted not to recommend the project, was concerned about the farm value of the property on which Blue Marmot is to be built.

Planning Commission Chair Allison Parks-Rudolf said the OAR only applies to the interference of surrounding properties, and not to farm practices on the property on which the project is being built. She said that OAR 660-004-0020 is used by the Planning Commission when it is approving non-farm dwellings, and the law states that as long as the proposed solar facility does not increase the costs of transportation or interfere with the ability of neighboring farms to continue farming then it is an allowable practice.

EDP Renewables noted in its rebuttal that “the Project is a higher and better use of the underlying land because, as the Landowner Letter explains, grazing on the property has significantly decreased due to drought and soil conditions. For this property, there is no history of crop cultivation.”

Holderman made the argument that the land the site would be built on is valuable agricultural land, even if it can only support a few cattle.

The Lake County Commissioners set up a Solar Committee earlier this year to work on updating the County’s zoning rules related to solar projects, as the rules have not been updated for decades. One of the issues is what counts as high value agricultural land, which was something discussed but not agreed upon at the meeting. There have been only a couple meetings of the committee, and Lake County Planning Dir. Darwin Johnson is unsure if there will be more meetings going forward as the committee process has stalled over some disagreements.

“We are learning more and more as we go with solar projects, and other solar projects have been approved in the County under OAR 660,” said Johnson.

Many opponents to the project wrote that there are other sites within Lake County for the project. In its rebuttal EDP Renewables stated that the alternative site analysis was conducted within a 10-mile radius of the existing substation on Stock Drive as any further than 10 miles from the already existing substation was economically infeasible due to the cost of the transmission line.

Planning Commissioner Joe Villagrana and others were concerned about the impact the facility would have visually from Hwy 395, which has been designated the Oregon Outback Scenic Byway. In its rebuttal EDP Renewables said, “The applicable legislation does not, however, establish the authority or intent to regulate or limit land uses in proximity to scenic byways.”

In terms of private views, which several adjoining landowners said would be impacted by the proposed solar facility, EDP Renewables responded by stating that Lake County does not have specific criteria related to the protection of private views, and that private views are not protected under state and federal laws.

Johnson noted that other solar projects within Lake County have been built not far from Hwy 395, and when those were proposed no one brought up the scenic byway argument. He also stated that the Oregon Department of Transportation was notified of the project and its location and so far the agency has not issued an objection to its location near a scenic byway. EDP Renewables states in its rebuttal that Lake County has not designated any Goal 5 scenic resources. The only scenic resources have been designated by state and federal levels, and those designations allow for solar facilities to be built near them.

“Solar has been present in Lake County since 2008. We understand that not a single property in Lake County has been devalued on the basis of proximity to solar since the first panels were installed,” EDP Renewables argued in its rebuttal.

One of the arguments made by a couple of individuals against the project is that it would permanently move the land away from agricultural use. EDP Renewables argued in its rebuttal that at the end of the life of the project the solar panels and metal poles would be removed and the land would revert to agricultural use, and that since EDP Renewables is not asking for a permanent zoning change, it meets the Goal 3 exception requirements.

In its response to wildlife mitigation plans, EDP Renewables noted that the mitigation plans have been approved by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) and that the wildlife mitigation plans fall under the purview of ODFW and not the Planning Commission.

After the vote neither Villagrana or Holderman would go on record as to the reasons they voted not to recommend the project. Both said that they would state their reasons to the Commissioners if they were asked. The other three voted in favor, with the condition that the agreement with the County Road Department is completed, and the recommendation that EDP Renewables works with the neighboring properties on reducing the impacts.

Johnson said there would be two Commissioner meetings, with the first one scheduled at the beginning of October. All the minutes and written and verbal testimony will be forwarded to the Commissioners for them to read over. People will have the opportunity to testify at the Commissioners meeting if they wish. Once the record is closed by the Commissioners, they will then deliberate and vote to either approve or deny the solar project.

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