July 20, 2012 Elizabeth McCarthy
Original source: http://www.cacurrent.com/storyDisplay.php?sid=6262
The Kern County Board of Supervisors July 17 unanimously approved development guidelines for photovoltaic solar projects proposed on productive farmland. The move is aimed at helping renewables developers better assess their financial risks at the start of the permitting process.
Kern County is the first county in the state to set land use parameters for photovoltaic developments on farm land.
“This would somewhat dis-incentivize [photovoltaic developers] from choosing productive farmland,” Lorelei Oviatt, county planning department director, told supervisors.
The guidelines “strike a balance between private property rights and the economic interests of the county,” said board chair Zack Scrivner. He noted that a farmer selling land to a solar developer is a private transaction, but loss of agricultural land means loss of annual jobs for farmworkers, impacting the county’s economy.
The land use blueprint is “a screening method for how a project could be considered for processing. It is not a screening method for approval,” Oviatt added.
The Kern County Farm Bureau and solar developer Recurrent Energy backed the guidelines, although they took issue with some provisions.
The Farm Bureau called for doubling the amount of mitigation to three acres for every acre developed. “There should be the same protection against displacing a farmer as displacing an endangered species,” said bureau executive director Ben McFarland.
Seth Israel, Recurrent vice president, objected to the 1.5 acres of mitigation set aside, but acknowledged the need to protect farmland. Recurrent is pursuing nine photovoltaic projects in Kern County, he said.
The photovoltaic guidelines--or “Pathway”--apply to proposed solar developments on land designated by the state as “unique,” “prime,” or “of special interest,” and farmed for at least five of the last 10 years. It includes an alternative mitigation fee, which could be directed to a non-profit agency for investment to provide a steady revenue stream to the county.
The guidelines are to be in place until July 2015 or 3,000 acres of land are used for solar development, whichever comes first. The conditions for going forward also include pest and weed controls.
The land use conditions do not apply to agricultural land outside the “special,” “prime,” or “unique” land use categories as defined by the Department of Conservation.
Photovoltaic developers seeking specified categories of farmland also are required to provide financial assurance bonds in the event of a bankruptcy, and to cover the cost of restoring the land at the end of the solar farms’ life.
Nine larger solar projects being reviewed by the county are exempted from the new permit review process.
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