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Local Opposition Deals Blow to Solar Project in Desert Town

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This spot in the Mojave Desert town of Landers may not get a big solar plant after all | Photo: Chris Clarke | KCET

Faced with mounting local opposition to a proposed 35-acre solar power facility in a dispersed, rural residential area, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 last week to take a closer look at problems with the project.

The Bowman Solar Project would be a three-megawatt photovoltaic project built by Salt Lake City-based S-Power in the community of Landers, a sparsely populated town along the southwestern boundary of the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps base north of Joshua Tree National Park. The electrical power generated by the project would have been bought by Southern California Edison.

Approved by the San Bernardino County Planning Commission in a 3-2 vote in December, the project drew opposition from residents of Landers and Twentynine Palms who said it would worsen air pollution, violated a new County ordinance on solar siting, and threatened their property values. After a community group appealed the Planning Commission's approval of the project, County Supervisors voted by a narrow margin to send the project back to the Planning Commission.

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The vote at the Supervisors' May 5 meeting ended with the two supervisors from the County's desert areas -- Robert Lovingood and James Ramos of the county's first and third districts, respectively -- joined in opposing the project by Chino Hills area Supervisor Curt Hagman. Second and fifth district supervisors Janice Rutherford and Josie Gonzales voted in favor of the project.

On the website of the Landers Association, the local community group that appealed the Planning Commission's vote, a jubilant statement applauded the Supervisors' vote:

It is a meaningful victory for all supporters of our petition as Landers neighborhoods will be able to retain their character and the environment will be protected from the harmful effects of large scale solar development. We continue to support distributed (rooftop) solar as the responsible way to pursue renewable energy goals.

Opponents of the project charged that a new temporary county solar ordinance adopted in 2013 requires that such projects be restricted to less-populated areas with substantially disturbed landscapes, such as old landfills and mine tailings piles.

That ordinance, prompted by a solar project in Newberry Springs whose 21-foot solar panels dwarf nearby homes, is intended as a stopgap to regulate solar development in unincorporated communities until the county completes an overall renewable energy amendment to its general plan. That general plan amendment should be completed this year.

A final decision on the Bowman Solar Project is expected this summer. Last week's vote gives Planning Commissioners who opposed the project -- including Paul Smith, whose district includes Landers -- additional leverage to force the rest of the Commissioners to consider issues such as the site's friable soils, currently held in place by vegetation.

Similarly sized projects in the Morongo Basin area have resulted in serious degradation of air quality downwind. Bowman Solar would be built on soils classified as "Cajon sandy," which can become airborne in winds as low as 12 mph.

State air quality regulations require that water or other dust control measures be applied within an hour of soil becoming airborne during a wind event; this is unlikely to be feasible at Bowman Solar, as the project would have no permanent employees on site after construction is finished, and the site will have no water supply.

The project's environmental assessment describes the site as "disturbed land." That's necessarily a subjective assessment. "I couldn't see how it was disturbed land, especially being out in that area, seeing the terrain that's there, and knowing that there's homes close to that land," Supervisor James Ramos told the San Bernardino Sun in the wake of the vote. "My decision is based strictly on the ordinance itself, and how this project came to us. This was about following the ordinance, not standing in the way of future development."

When I stopped by the site Monday to take a few photos, there was certainly evidence of human use on the project site, from broken beer bottles to graffiti on the rocks. But the creosote bush vegetation was essentially intact, and some of it had been in place for a very long time, such as this clump:

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Creosote clonal ring on the Bowman Solar site | Photo:Chris Clarke | KCET
 

At about five feet in diameter at the base, the above-pictured creosote bush clonal ring may well be between 1,500 and 2,000 years old. Creosotes in excess of 500 years of age are abundant on the site.

Despite their age, the shrubs are rather low-growing: few rise above three feet in height. That may be why locals feared that filling the site with solar panels between 6 and 12 feet tall would constitute a significant visual intrusion, especially considering the site is atop a rise that's visible for several miles in just about any direction -- including from ridge lines in Joshua Tree National Park and the summits of Mount San Jacinto and San Gorgonio Peak.

The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to make a final decision on the project on June 2.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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