Yakima County Solar Moratorium
by Don Jenkins
County commissioners last month asked the council to pause the review, pleading for time
to evaluate how solar projects will impact the county's agricultural land base.
The Washington Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council on Monday brushed aside Yakima County's moratorium on solar projects.
The council will continue to fast-track a California company's application to build side-by-side solar plants on about 1,700 acres zoned for agriculture.
The council doesn't have a "mechanism" to stop the review "in light of a county-enacted moratorium," director of siting Ami Hafkemeyer told county commissioners in a letter.
County commissioners last month asked the council to pause the review, pleading for time to evaluate how solar projects will impact the county's agricultural land base.
Washington's clean-energy law, requiring utilities to phase out electricity generated from coal or natural gas, has set off a rush to put solar panels on Eastern Washington farmland.
Developers can bypass counties by applying to the state council, made up mostly of Inslee administration officials from various state agencies.
Yakima County Commissioner Amanda McKinney said Tuesday the commissioners will review the council's response and consider their next move.
"It boggles the mind we would want to make major infrastructure decisions without a statewide plan to study the impacts," she said. "It continues to be really, truly disappointing."
Commissioners passed the moratorium several months after Cypress Creek Renewables applied to build the High Top and Ostrea solar projects about 28 miles southeast of Yakima.
The state council subsequently fast-tracked the application after determining the solar projects would not harm the environment and are not prohibited by county land-use laws.
The council does not consider the moratorium a land-use or zoning law, according to Hafkemeyer.
The council set a precedent in 2017 by disregarding a moratorium adopted by Kittitas County, another Central Washington county that has seen an influx of renewable energy projects.
Despite the moratorium, the state council recommended a solar plant on farmland. Gov. Jay Inslee approved the project.
Because its application has been fast-tracked, Cypress' proposal may reach Inslee's desk early next year.
Yakima County commissioners said they were concerned that losing agricultural land would violate the Growth Management Act. The act directs counties to conserve farmland.
Hafkemeyer said the commissioners didn't need to worry, pointing to a 2008 decision by the Washington Supreme Court.
In that case, Residents Opposed to Kittitas Turbines v. EFSEC, the court ruled the Growth Management Act took a backseat to siting energy projects.
An energy plan pushed by minority Republicans in the state Senate calls for letting counties review solar projects proposed to be built on agricultural land.
Inslee and majority Democrats, however, have moved to expand and streamline the state council's process for permitting projects.
Inslee has cited "nimbyism" as an obstacle to siting renewable energy projects and said he plans to propose beefing up the siting council's staff to speed-up projects.
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