By Karen Brainard
The vote was unanimous—all Ramona Community Planning Group (RCPG) members present at their meeting Thursday night, Jan. 5, voted to oppose the photovoltaic solar farm planned for property at Warnock Drive and Ramona Street.
The RCPG vote does not spell the end for the solar farm project as the Ramona planning group is advisory to the county and the San Diego County Planning Commission can override the decision.
While many of the RCPG members, as well as residents speaking against the project, voiced their support for solar, they said the agricultural land at 1650 Warnock Drive was not the right location due to incompatibility with community character, blight to the area and loss of use of prime farmland.
RCPG member Torry Brean said he just couldn’t support that location for a solar farm.
“I don’t believe the majority of Ramona will be happy when they see it,” he said.
Planner Chris Anderson noted that she drives by the site almost every day and asks people what they think about solar panels there.
“Every person that I said that to doesn’t want it there,” Anderson said.
She added that the project requires a major use permit. If it were allowed by right, it would not have come to the planning group, she said.
“I don’t believe solar is conducive to that neighborhood to that magnitude,” Anderson said.
Paul Stykel, a planning group member, said that, after passing a solar farm on the way to Mammoth Lakes, he decided he couldn’t let that happen in Ramona.
Four of the 15 planners were not present for the vote: Angus Tobiason, Chad Anderson, Richard Tomlinson and Eb Hogervorst.
The vote came nearly half a year after the project was first presented to the RCPG by Sol Orchard LLC. Since that time representatives from Sol Orchard, RBF Consulting and Chris Brown, president of Alchemy Consulting Group, have brought the project before the planning group for feedback.
They also presented the solar project on Dec. 15 to the Ramona Design Review Board at the RCPG’s request. The design review board, which cannot approve or reject such projects, gave recommendations to shield the panels, including types of plants and fencing, if the project is approved.
The proposed wholesale distributed generation solar project would be built on 45.2 acres of the 110 acres. It would produce and sell energy to San Diego Gas & Electric that would go into the Ramona grid, according to representatives for the project. The owner of the property, Mark Bousema, would lease out the land for 25 years.
Bousema spoke at Thursday’s meeting and explained that his business, S & S Farms, often referred to as a “pig farm,” raises pigs for bio-medical research. Bousema said that, when he came to Ramona in 2001 specifically to operate the farm, he met a lot of opposition. He also noted that it is very expensive to farm in California, citing high property taxes and continually increasing water rates.
“So why am I for a solar project? You know what? I like green pastures. I like cows. It’s a beautiful site. I came here to be here for the rest of my life and farm this farm,” said Bousema.
“For me this is a good lease. It’s a long-term lease. It gives me a big buffer …It bites my high property taxes. It bites all my high inputs. It gives me the assurance that I can have enough money to preserve my hog farm operation,” he continued.
About six residents living near Bousema’s property spoke in opposition. Daniel Wise of Ramona, speaking in support of solar, said he has been involved with solar since it started in the 1970s and provided information about the advancement of the technology and the benefits.
Brown and Will Pritchard from Sol Orchard rebutted residents' claims that the solar farm would be a power plant and that it would forever destroy farmland.
“It’s a scare tactic we’ll be polluting dirt,” said Brown. The consultant said the project would consist of solar panels, inverters and dirt—no concrete would be poured and the panels would be washed with de-ionized water four times a year.
When planner Matt Deskovick asked if any “non-farmable” areas had been considered, Pritchard said the typography matters and the panels have to be on a flat surface. He also said the power purchase agreement with SDG&E is locked in for that site.
Brown said the next step will be to go before the San Diego County Planning Commission for approval. He said they will continue to work with the county with the conditions set by the design review board. The project is going through the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process and Brown said he anticipates information will be out for public review in about 90 days. The public will have 30 days to respond, he said.
After the meeting Bousema said that, even if the county does not approve the solar project for his property, he will continue to raise pigs.
“This was a good lease for me, but I would stay in farming,” he said.