Commission approves solar project permit

Ramona planning group may appeal

By Joe Naiman

County planning commissioners approved a major use permit for the Sol Orchard solar energy project planned for a farm in the 1600 block of Warnock Drive.

The commission’s 6-1 vote on Oct. 19, with Leon Brooks in opposition, can be appealed to the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. Ramona Community Planning Group (RCPG), which on two occasions this year unanimously recommended denial of the project, is contemplating an appeal. Three members of the group and several Ramona residents spoke against the project at the commission hearing.

Sol Orchard would utilize approximately 42.7 acres of the 110-acre farm that includes swine, oat hay, and grazing land. The swine and grazing land would remain while the photovoltaic panels would replace the oat hay area. The county commission included a 50-foot buffer zone between the screening area and the panels rather than the proposed 20-foot buffer. Sol Orchard and property owner Mark Bousema will decide whether to reduce the grazing land or to reduce the number of solar panels.

The single-axis tracking photovoltaic solar panels would range in height at maximum tilt from 8 to 11-1/2 feet, depending on terrain. Most of the panels would be 8 feet high at maximum tilt. The panels would be aligned in rows that rotate to face the east in the morning and the west in the afternoon. The panels would have a production capacity of 7.5 megawatts.

Energy from the site would be delivered to an existing 12 kilovolt distribution line that runs parallel to Warnock Drive. Bousema will lease the land 25 years.

Bousema would be required to designate a 10-foot wide non-motorized pathway within the road right-of-way for Warnock Drive and Ramona Street. That trail would be improved to the satisfaction of the county’s Department of Parks and Recreation, although no relocation of existing power poles or utility boxes would be required and the pathway width may be reduced in those areas.

The solar panel area is at least 400 feet away from both Ramona Street and Warnock Drive. Screening in the form of vegetation is among the conditions. The shrubs and vines would likely mature in approximately two years while the trees are expected to grow to maturity in five to 10 years. The use of sycamore trees allows for faster growth while matching other trees in the area, although screening issues were brought up at the hearing.

“Sycamores are not drought-tolerant,” said Commissioner Michael Beck.

“It’s going to lose its leaves. We’re going to lose camouflage for three or four months of the year,” RCPG member Scotty Ensign said.

“It’s going to take the full 25 years of the lease agreement for us to actually have camouflage,” Ensign said.

“Location is an important consideration,” said RCPG Secretary Kristi Mansolf.

Mansolf noted that the project is in a high-visibility location.

“Long-term planning to integrate solar facilities into Ramona needs to be done,” she said.

The Planning Commission subsequently discussed a comprehensive plan for the location of solar energy facilities in San Diego County which would involve obtaining information on current proposals and plans from other jurisdictions.

“We encouraged them to look in the outlying areas,” said RCPG Chair Jim Piva about the group’s first contact with Sol Orchard representatives.

“There are areas that could be a perfect fit for this project,” Piva said. “I think they should have looked at alternatives.”

Sol Orchard Vice President Will Pritchard told the Planning Commission that location requirements included being within five miles of a substation and having direct access to a main distribution feeder. The alternative sites Sol Orchard considered either did not meet those requirements or had conservation easements or existing development. The Sol Orchard site is one mile from a substation.

Pritchard added that the maximum elevation distance for which a neighboring property owner would be looking down at the solar panels would be 60 feet at 1,800 feet away. He also noted that the tracking array, which follows the sun from morning to night, eliminates reflection off the panels.

“This project is all about pollution-free renewable energy at the local level,” Pritchard said. “It does not require any new transmission lines.”

Joe Minervini of Cecelia Jo Road told the Planning Commission that the shrubs would be 30 feet apart and the trees would be 50 feet apart.

“This project will be in the center of rural Ramona, the center of our valley,” he said.

“Our opposition goes beyond visual impact and community character,” said Donna Myers, who lives in the 1800 block of Warnock Drive.

Myers argued that an industrial use would be on agricultural land.

“That’s equivalent to planning 50 houses on it,” she said. “This project is heavy-duty, a damaging burden for this portion of the valley.”

Myers also called for additional time so that the planning group can develop a master plan to include solar facilities within Ramona.

“This is the last working agricultural belt in Ramona,” Myers said. “This is an industry on ag land, a 25-year lease for blight.”

San Vicente Road resident Kathy DaSilva noted that county Department of Public Works Deputy Director Donna Turbyfill offered the former Pamo Landfill site, which is 4.8 miles from a substation, for solar energy use.

“It is an industry. It is not in harmony, bulk or scale with the rest of the neighborhood,” DaSilva said. “This is the beginning of industrialization of the Ramona Valley.”

Planning Commissioner Peder Norby noted that the new facilities could be visualized as an industrial building, walls, or a row pattern similar to crops.

“It’s in the eye of the beholder,” he said.

If county supervisors do not grant an appeal, construction is anticipated to begin during the second quarter of 2013 with full operation expected during the fourth quarter of 2013.

   
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