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Fresno County Supes Support Solar Power Plant

Sep 01, 2011

Fresno Bee

In an early test of Fresno County's appetite for solar power, county supervisors on Tuesday bucked concerns of the agricultural community and gave the go-ahead to a solar plant on prime Valley farmland.

The proposed 90-acre project along Interstate 5, which will help meet the state's growing demand for renewable energy, is not one of the biggest the county will see. But it's one of the first to hit the Board of Supervisors' agenda, and it's on land considered of highest agricultural value – land that many farmers have fought to keep out of the hands of solar developers.

The board, in its unanimous support for the project, was careful to note that energy development would not always take precedence over farmland – only under limited circumstances. Still, the board's blessing was a seen as a huge victory for a new and unproven solar industry.

"This is a very exciting opportunity for the state of California, and especially Fresno County," said Alan Boyce, CEO of Huron-based Westlands Solar Farms, which is pursuing the power plant.

Up against a strong agricultural lobby, Boyce pitched his project as benefiting local business, creating jobs and, most importantly, displacing only a small amount of farmland that already was impaired by limited water.

Supervisors took note. The board's 5-0 vote freed the property from its Williamson Act contract, which committed the land to agricultural use until a greater public benefit could be found.

"If you don't have water, you don't have anything," said county Supervisor Henry Perea. "What other kinds of opportunities are we are going to have to bring in industry?"

The Fresno County Farm Bureau was joined by its counterpart at the state Tuesday in putting pressure on the board to prioritize agriculture.

"Ask this developer to pick another piece of ground where it's more appropriate," said Chris Scheuring, an attorney for the California Farm Bureau Federation. "Prime soil is irreplaceable. It doesn't come back."

Both county planners and the county's agriculture advisory committee recommended to supervisors that the property, 10 miles east of Coalinga, remain as farmland. Both said solar projects are best relegated to less fertile land, not farmland designated as prime.

"The [board's] decision wasn't what I expected. It's a step back," said Ryan Jacobsen, chief executive of the county Farm Bureau.

Jacobsen said the vote appeared contrary to guidelines recently passed by the board to protect prime agricultural areas from solar development. He fears that more farmland, amid an increasing push for solar, could be lost to arbitrary and piecemeal decisions by supervisors.

"We need to come up with a distinguishing factor for what's going to be allowed and what's not going to be allowed," he said.

Employees of Westlands Solar Farms touted their business as a coalition of local property owners, many of whom are active farmers and know where solar development is appropriate – and not appropriate. The company is leasing its land from a farming company that Boyce co-owns.

Much of the dry western part of Fresno County, they said, is ripe for solar. The proposed plant's location near a transmission facility was another selling point.

"We're going to have a lot of these [proposals] down the road, but the close proximity to the substation is what got me on this one," said county Supervisor Debbie Poochigian.

The Westlands project would generate 18 megawatts of power, which would be sold to PG&E. That's enough to accommodate as many as 18,000 homes.

Westlands officials still need several county permits to move forward, but their release from the Williamson Act contract is seen as their biggest hurdle.

The project is one of more than 25 that currently await county approval.

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