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Update: Solargen says all Construction Jobs in County


Oct 13, 2010
By Connor Ramey

In a strong sign of support, the board of supervisors Tuesday approved three preliminary steps in the proposal for Solargen Energy's Panoche Valley solar farm.

The board unanimously supported the final environmental impact report and in a 4-1 vote - with Supervisor Pat Loe dissenting - agreed to cancel 12 Williamson Act contracts that would have prevented the project from moving forward. Supervisors also unanimously approved a necessary water assessment study.

"We are excited and grateful for the votes," Solargen Chief Executive Officer Michael Peterson said. "We believe it will provide an excellent value to the county. ... We still have work to do. We need to make sure we get the mitigation measures in place."

The board listened to nearly six hours of testimony from more than 40 speakers. Supporters touted the job creation, and the opposition contended the project would have an irreversible effect on the environment.

The approvals by the board will allow the originally planned 420-megawatt photovoltaic solar power plant - it has been reduced to 399 megawatts - to move forward with its development agreement that supervisors will review Oct. 26, said Richard Inman, interim county administrative officer. The planning commission will review the project's use permit on Oct. 20.

The solar farm is planned to cover 4,885 acres and cost $1.2 billion.

"This project is a risk but it has the potential of great benefit," Supervisor Reb Monaco said before the supervisors voted.

In the final EIR presented to the board Tuesday, Solargen proposed a slimmed-down project that would "further reduce the significant impacts of the project." The newly proposed plan would reduce the project voltage to 399 megawatts and create a biological easement on 1,683 acres of the project.

The plan also would move the arrangement of solar panels to the north, away from the neighboring school and homes to the south.

"The land would create a noise buffer," said Jason Retterer, an attorney at Lombardo & Gilles representing Solargen Energy.

Solargen also purchased the rights of an adjacent ranch that would set aside 10,899 acres of conservation lands. In 1998, the land was highlighted as an area of high habitat value for the species affected by the Solargen proposal, Peterson said.

A large focus on Solargen's proposal was assuring the board that 100 percent of the jobs would come from within the county.

"We picked San Benito County because it needs jobs," Peterson said to the board. "We talk about the state and the value with the state, but truly, the value of this project is the jobs and the accompanying impact to this county."

During Peterson's presentation, Solargen contended that all the construction jobs would come from in the county.

"This county is a designated target employment area. That's one of the reasons we are here - we have to create the jobs in this county and we will do so," he said.

Neil Struthers, the executive officer for the Building and Construction Trades Council for San Benito and Santa Clara counties, said Solargen is prepared to sign a document that would require it to try and hire 100 percent within the county.

"A project like this needs to generate local jobs, but not just any jobs, good jobs," he said. "You want it to benefit the local economy, not burden it, and to Solargen's credit that's been their goal and their desire."

The document would create a "first-source" hiring program for construction workers in San Benito County, Struthers said. San Benito County workers would get the first chance to work on the project. The agreement also sets up a training program for those who are not in the industry.

Local business leaders heavily supported the project, calling it a boon to the "economic vitality of the county."

"The project will bring many economic benefits to our county," said Scott Fuller, who was representing the San Benito County Chamber of Commerce.

Those against the project worried that the project would change the landscape of the area and endanger the area's biological resources, including the already threatened species of the San Joaquin kit fox, blunt-nosed leopard lizard and giant kangaroo rat.

Bob Power of the Santa Clara Audubon Society called the project "massively ill-conceived."

Power stated that the project will fail but the county has the ability to avoid the "inevitable failure."

"You (the board) are ahead of the hurricane," he said. "Avoid it."

Power wasn't the only person who felt that way. Others who opposed the project believed the EIR was rushed and the findings were not strong enough to allow the cancellations of the Williamson Act contracts.

In order to cancel the Williamson Act the board needed to find that the project was in the public's best interest, the public concerns outweigh the objectives of the Williamson Act and that there is no "proximate non-contracted land" available to the project.

Those against the project turned to an alternative site listed in the EIR at the Westlands CREZ in the Westlands Water District between Fresno and Kings counties as a better site for the project.

Solargen's CEO argued that the land wasn't "proximate" and wasn't available.

"We (Solargen) chose this location because it has power lines so we can transmit our power - Westlands CREZ, it does not have the transmission capabilities," Peterson said. "If it was truly the place to be, wouldn't (other developers) be there already?"

The California Farm Bureau Federation was one of the many outside organizations that opposed the project. In a letter to the board, Managing Counsel Christian Scheuring wrote the bureau urged the county to decline the EIR.

"The production of solar energy is undoubtedly a net positive if done under the right conditions, but with all lands use planning decisions, context is everything," Scheuring wrote.

Members from Save Panoche Valley and Defenders of Wildlife also spoke out against the project, citing that the proposed project would cause damage to the environment in the area and the small farms already there.

Kim Williams from Save Panoche Valley proposed the project be placed closer to Hollister, where jobs are needed, and to have a further reduced size, she said.

"As with most things, bigger isn't better - it's just big," she said.

Despite the concerns from most of the 40 speakers, the board couldn't turn down more jobs to the area, members said.

"We have a lot of people here that are unemployed, and if I turned away work I would feel terribly guilty for it," Supervisor Anthony Botelho said

. Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz wanted to see the county take a large step in moving toward green energy and the solar park was that step, he said.

"I want to see San Benito County become the capital of the world in solar energy," he said.

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