October 17, 2012

By Zachary K. Johnson
Record Staff Writer
October 17, 2012 12:00 AM

STOCKTON – The San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday gave the go-ahead to a plan to build a 20-acre solar power facility in an eastern, rural area of the county, overturning a decision by the county Planning Commission to deny the project.

The 1.5-megawatt facility is small compared to solar farms on hundreds of acres found elsewhere in the state, but it’s on a larger scale than any other solar project in the county, according to planning staff.

Supervisors approved the project but said they would like to see the county develop a more comprehensive approach to requests to build new solar and wind power projects in the county. The elected officials suggested bolstering the county’s Community Development Department budget to help the stretched department tackle large policy issues that have arisen this year, like a desire to revamp the county’s rules governing rural wineries.

Farming advocates and neighbors opposed the solar project proposed on Jack Tone Road, south of Victor Road near Lockeford.

“There’s no getting away from the ugly,” said Ruben Cortez Jr., who said it would replace the current view from the front of his home, which is a pasture with grazing cows. “It’s like staring at a PG&E transfer station right across the street from your house.”

But the facility would be surrounded by 6- to 8-foot-high fencing, which is higher than the 5-foot-tall solar panels, according to Bear Creek Solar, the Minnesota company proposing to build the project.

And the company will hire a landscape architect to design the borders, a process that would include getting input from neighbors, said Steve Herum, a local attorney representing the applicant. “That will be a combination of trees and bushes that are fast growing and drought-resistant,” he said. “We will be working with the neighbors … to make sure the landscaping will be acceptable.”

He also said the land for the project is not considered prime agricultural land, nor is the land a Williamson Act parcel. The Williamson Act allows farmers to receive tax breaks for not developing farmland.

In September, the county Planning Commission found the photovoltaic facility was incompatible with the surrounding area and shot it down on a 3-2 vote, according to the county. Bear Creek Solar appealed to the Board of Supervisors, which overturned the commission’s denial on a 4-1 vote. Vice Chairman Ken Vogel was the sole dissenting vote.

Board members also noted the county was lacking a policy specific to large solar facilities, which have been more common in the state because of a mandate to increase the use of sustainable sources of energy, like solar and wind.

“That just puts a bull’s-eye on any vacant farmland,” Supervisor Larry Ruhstaller said.
The San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation opposed the project, and bureau representative Katie Patterson stressed the need for new county rules. “We’re a few years behind other counties. … We need to sit down and go to the drawing board,” she said.

The county Community Development Department is revising the county’s General Plan, a process expected to continue into next year. The process includes revamping rules, like the county’s approach to solar facilities.

At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, Vogel suggested the board increase the Community Development Department’s budget sooner than next fiscal year, considering the increased demand on the department.