3,900-acre Solar Project Approved
by Mateusz Perkowski
A solar facility planned for 3,900 acres in a southcentral Oregon farm zone has won regulatory approval despite objections that it will interfere with surrounding agriculture.
The state's Energy Facility Siting Council has voted unanimously to clear the Obsidian Solar Center for construction near Christmas Valley, Ore., roughly four years after the project was initially proposed.
The decision comes after a state hearing officer rejected arguments by neighboring landowners that the solar facility will impermissibly disrupt farm operations due to fugitive dust, invasive weeds and displaced wildlife such as elk and rodents.
"The protestants failed to establish the proposed facility, as conditioned, would seriously interfere with accepted farming practices or that the facility will materially alter the overall land use patterns in the area," said Jesse Ratcliffe, a state government natural resources attorney.
Opponents hadn't proven that mitigation measures planned by the solar developer to address such problems would fail, he said. "Essentially, the hearing officer concluded that the protestants hadn't provided evidence that the impacts they alleged were likely to occur."
Revegetation and erosion control measures will ensure the solar facility meets soil protection standards, while plans to mitigate its impacts on wildlife habitat are also sufficient, according to regulators.
The solar facility doesn't diminish living standards, private property values or business interests, according to regulators, and won't exceed the capacity of public utilities, roads and local emergency services.
The project will be limited to extracting 5,000 gallons of water per day from any wells located on the property. Since it was first proposed, the project's size has been scaled back from about 6,000 acres to 3,900 acres.
"That was to avoid impacts to sensitive resources," said Kellen Tardaewether, senior siting analyst with the Oregon Department of Energy.
The solar developer was also permitted to take an exception from the statewide land use goal of farmland preservation, though some EFSC members said future projects should better support such a decision.
"I really think that applicants need to do more in the future," said Hanley Jenkins, an EFSC member and former county planning director. "There need to be reasons to do that other than, "Gee, there are going to be economic benefits to the community.' Any development is going to provide some additional financial benefit."
Kent Howe, EFSC's vice chair and a land use consultant, also said the reasons justifying farmland development should be more thoroughly explained by future applicants.
"Exceptions to the goals need to be robust in their preparation to establish the findings we need to give approval," Howe said.
In this case, however, EFSC decided the circumstances of the property met the requirements for an exception from the farmland preservation goal.
"I do believe that because of low value of the agricultural productivity of the site and the fact it does not have irrigation water available probably goes a long way to meet that exception," Jenkins said.
The project's opponents may still appeal the EFSC decision directly to the Oregon Supreme Court but their attorney wasn't available for comment on that possibility.
Detractors have claimed that deer, elk, ground squirrels and jack rabbits will move away from the solar facility and will cause damage to surrounding cropland while construction will kick up dust and erode the soil.
The project's opponents urged the EFSC to find a better site for the solar facility that's farther away from established farms and residences.
learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs