Hesperia Solar Project Hangs In Balance, Could Be Harbinger for Other Installations

The site of the proposed Hesperia West solar project | Photo: San Bernardino County Planning Commission

A proposed 20-acre, 2.7 megawatt photovoltaic solar project in the Oak Hills section of Hesperia may well be denied this week by the San Bernardino County Planning Commission at their meeting Thursday. The project, proposed by the Sycamore Physicians Partners group, has been the subject of local controversy in Oak Hills, a still-rural outpost at the edges of the sprawling desert suburbs of the Victor Valley.

The county's Planning Commission held a public hearing on the project in early August. Faced with vocal opposition to the solar facility from Oak Hills residents, the Commission continued the hearing to September 19 and directed the commission's staff to draft a formal denial of the project's Conditional Use Permit.

Denying the project's permit would kill the project, an act that represents a reversal by the Planning Commission. Prior to the August 8 public hearing, the Planning Commission's staff had recommended the project be approved, saying that granting the project's permit would be consistent with the area's General Plan.

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That apparently riled locals, who turned up at the August meeting armed with arguments that the project would actually conflict with several aspects of the local land use plan, especially those elements having to do with viewsheds.

The city of Hesperia had previously raised some concerns about the project's compatibility with city ordinances, finally opposing the project outright at the August Planning Commission meeting.

The project, known by its proponents as the Hesperia West project, is one of a number of wholesale distributed generation proposals that has popped up in the California desert in the last couple of years. If Sycamore does succeed in building the project, it would sell that power to Southern California Edison in a power purchase agreement signed with the utility as part of the California Public Utility Commission's California Renewable Energy Small Tariff (CREST) program. Earlier this year, SCE asked the California Public Utilities Commission for appproval of 75 such CREST power purchase agreements, most of them in the Mojave Desert.

Many of the CREST projects are proposed by Coronus Solar, which sold Hesperia West to Sycamore for $1.7 million in 2012.

Of those SCE CREST projects, many have been postponed for at least a year by the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors' moratorium on solar projects in unincorporated areas of the county. That moratorium, enacted in June, was spurred in part by rural residents' outrage over a solar project on Mountain View Road in Newberry Springs that changed dramatically during the planning process. What had first been described to Newberry Springs residents as a tract of ground-mounted photovoltaic panels at about head-height became, by the time construction crews appeared this summer, a field of gigantic PV arrays 27 feet tall and nearly 50 across -- blocking the view of the mountains for neighbors on Mountain View Road.

County Supervisors reacted to the Newberry Springs project by issuing a moratorium on new developments so that the county could take the time to draft regulations to avoid another Mountain View Road debacle. That moratorium applies only to projects in unincorporated areas, so it doesn't cover Hesperia West.

But the story of Newberry Springs' solar troubles had certainly reached Hesperia residents, and they arrived at the August meeting loaded for bureaucratic bear. Given that the Planning Commission has signaled its intent to deny the project on Thursday, and has allotted only 15 minutes on its agenda to do so, it looks as though those local opponents may have won. Look for this story to repeat itself in the California desert as more smaller utility-scale proposals make their way from the far outback into neighborhoods where people actually live.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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