Sol Orchard’s Pritchard views these concerns as specious. “I’ve heard all these things. In terms of analyzing the impact of this type of project, the only credible complaint is visual, but we’re providing landscaping at least as good, if not better, than you’d see for a housing project, or for anything else that would be developed there. There’s drainage that goes through the property, but we’re staying out of it.” Electrocution hazard? “No.” Fire hazard? “A eucalyptus grove is probably not the best thing to have in your neighborhood, but we don’t present a risk to it.” As to potentially hazardous materials in the soil, he says, “That’s completely absurd.”
Pritchard also takes strong issue with opponents’ contentions (which were rejected by the county) about wildlife on the site. “There are absolutely no burrowing owls. The Canadian geese are not going to be bothered by the project because, again, we’re not disturbing the drainage they use. They’re not a protected species, anyway, and as you know, they’re pretty damn stubborn.”
This aerial map shows the proposed layout of the solar generating facility.
Image courtesy of RBF consulting
Stubborn might also characterize the cadre of anti-panel activists, including Brennecke, who (in blunt fashion) questions the impartiality of San Diego County bureaucrats.
“Ever since the beginning,” he alleges, “the San Diego County planners have been cheerleaders for this thing. The county supervisors, in their rush to solar and to improve their tax base, have put a loophole into the law allowing solar on virtually any land, including what is supposed to be agricultural. They’ve engineered zoning in such a way to allow it, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s within the spirit of the rules. They’ve violated their own ordinances.”
Brennecke also claims that the supervisors have run roughshod over Ramonans’ wishes. “It doesn’t really matter what the populace thinks if the supervisors have decided that they want this project and are willing to sort of bend the rules to get it, and then they pass it. Essentially, they’re telling the opposition, ‘We dare you to oppose it.’ I don’t know why they want it — Why do they? I’m not going to say necessarily that they’re on the take, but what I will say is that they’ve definitely shown an interest in making the solar project happen, and they’re not listening to their constituents. Let’s just say that I’m not happy with their performance.”
When I ask Brennecke about an online poll that claims most locals support the project, he says, ‘I’m not aware of a poll. I don’t look at the Ramona Patch. We haven’t met a person yet that’s for it. I don’t meet people who say, ‘Gee, Ken, why are you opposing this?’ But we don’t have a scientific poll, one way or the other.”
Solar project divides residents of Ramona, CA
On February 6, 2013, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors approved a major use permit for the project, putting the kibosh on appeals filed by the Ramona Community Planning Group, Citizens for a Rural Ramona, and the Laborers International Union.
On March 8, in a final bid to pull the plug on the project, the union, along with a tiny, made-for-litigation group, Concerned Citizens of Ramona, filed suit against the county and Sol Orchard in San Diego Superior Court. The plaintiffs are represented by Lozeau Drury, an environmental law firm in Oakland.
Richard Drury contends that the supervisors, by piecemealing the Sol Orchard projects in San Diego County (i.e., looking at the Ramona project in isolation, rather than as one component of an overall land-use regimen), have abused the board’s discretion. Drury maintains that, unless a proposed development is exempt (this happens typically with small residential projects), the California Environmental Quality Act strongly favors an environmental impact report whenever a “fair argument” can be made regarding the project’s impacts.
“Governmental entities stumble when there hasn’t been an environmental impact report,” Drury says. Notwithstanding the courts’ reluctance to overturn land-use decisions made by local governments, “it’s a winning case. I think we have a good chance.”
The Laborers International Union is paying the firm on an hourly basis, says Drury, though “not at typical market rates.” (He declined to specify the rate, but according to a State Bar of California survey, the average hourly rate for California attorneys is $412.)
Why is the union funding the case? “Construction workers may be exposed to high levels of contaminants in the soil, so the union is interested in protecting the health of its workers,” Drury says.
Brennecke feels betrayed. “Some years ago, Bousema applied for a permit for his pig farm. A lot of neighbors who didn’t want a hog-raising facility near them opposed him, but there were others in the community who said, ‘Well, it’s agriculture, and it’s going to be a relatively clean place,’ and they supported him. This is a clean pig farm. [The pig farm occupies only a small percentage of the property.] But now, the people who supported him are in the uncomfortable position of having industrial blight in an agricultural area — it’s not an agricultural application at all. Most of the people who have purchased land in this area have done so because they want to live in a rural area with a rural lifestyle. They’ve been involved in rural businesses. They’re ‘stewards of the land.’ I’m a comparative newcomer, and I’ve been here for 30 years. Bousema doesn’t live here, so he doesn’t have to live with the consequences of what he’s doing. He comes up here and works and then goes back to Escondido.”
Neighbors of the proposed solar installation say panels like these constitute “industrial blight.”
Photo by istockphoto/Thinkstock.
Brennecke continues, “People who are cheerleading this project for one reason or another haven’t gotten into it deeply enough to understand it. I’m in favor of solar as a general rule, but where I think it belongs is on people’s rooftops. I think that’s dead space, anyway. They want to put it in an agricultural area…[but] in Bousema’s mind, there’s only one variable, and that’s money. I mean, he will get up in a meeting — and he has, in front of the Ramona Planning Group — and say, ‘This is the only way I can save my land for agricultural purposes to give to my kids,’ and I think that’s complete nonsense. For one thing, this grid is going to be on the land, and it’s a 25-year project. There’s nothing to indicate to anybody that, after the 25-year period has elapsed, it will revert back to agriculture. It will be easier for them to simply renew the contract for another 25 years, effectively taking it out of agriculture forever.”