‘We have all the energy we need.” That’s what a handful of Ramonans are claiming these days as they wage a battle against solar power in their neck of the woods.
Too much of a clean, green, renewable thing? Ken Brennecke, a former computer programmer who runs a bamboo-growing business at the south end of the Ramona Valley, thinks so. The alleged surplus, he claims, is just one of a handful of legitimate reasons to oppose the Sol Orchard project, which is slated to go in on currently vacant parts of a nearby hog farm.
“Right now, there are 3.5 more times solar projects on the slate than is necessary to achieve the goal of 33.33 percent energy by renewable resources. That means that roughly 100 percent of all our energy needs in California could be met by solar. So then, why would you need more of them?” On the other hand, gushes Brennecke, “Now that they’re fracking out of their gourds in the Midwest, we’re going to be a producer of natural gas in this country. For the next 200 years, we are going to have ample fossil fuels.” But as anti-solar activists admit, it’s more about aesthetics than energy. For Brennecke and his fellow travelers, who view solar panels on Mark Bousema’s porcine property as anything but “green,” the operative term is “industrial blight.”
Against neighborhood and planning-group opposition, the county approved the placement of solar panels on this 43-acre patch of Ramona farmland.
Image by Howie Rosen
In 2011, Sol Orchard, a small solar-energy firm based in Carmel, California, approached Bousema about leasing part of his 110-acre parcel for a solar-power project. Bousema, who raises pigs for medical research under the banner of S&S Farms, agreed to a 25-year lease that entailed the erection of solar panels on 42.7 acres. On July 7, 2011, Sol Orchard made an introductory presentation to the Ramona Community Planning Group (an advisory group that lacks authority), outlining the 7.5-megawatt proposal. In support of the project, they cited a recently enacted law in California mandating that in-state utility companies obtain at least one-third of their energy from renewable sources. They were met by strident opposition from about ten locals who decried what they termed “visual blight” and the “loss of phenomenal farmland.”
By the end of 2011, and after several more hearings, Sol Orchard agreed to landscaping changes suggested by the Ramona Design Review Board, a group whose input is not required by San Diego County.
In January 2012, despite these aesthetic concessions, Ramona planners, who purport to represent the unincorporated area’s approximately 45,000 residents, voted to reject the project.
On October 19, 2012, the San Diego County Planning Commission voted 6–1 to approve a “major use permit” requiring that Sol Orchard provide a buffer zone and additional screening. At that hearing, several members of the Ramona Community Planning Group spoke in opposition, lambasting the project as “an industrial use not in harmony, bulk, or scale with the rest of the area.”
And what of the area?
In order to gather in the sights, scents, and sounds of Ramona, I drive northeast from Poway to Dye Road, where an ozone-suffused afternoon finds me at the south end of the Ramona Valley. Here, in the heart of rural, ramshackle Southern California, I pass hardscrabble ranches with horses grazing. Horse trailers and dilapidated outbuildings dot rambling parcels; at the rear of one lot, next to a dusty shack and a pile of tires, sits a boat tilted onto its side. In the distance, scattered large homes suggest more prosperity in a different neighborhood.
The smell of ammonia hits me high in the nose just before I see the “fresh eggs” sign. On Warnock, where remnants of an old dairy sit in the haze, there are rusty silos, cows that may or may not be contented, and propane tanks — earmarks of downscale ruritania.
Does Ramona really have the beauty of a national park? “You bet,” answers Ken Brennecke.
Image by Howie Rosen
As for the site of the future solar farm, it’s a rock-studded pasture with a handful of cows lounging near a cluster of white buildings where swine reside. (The only sound is a siren from a sheriff’s cruiser on San Vicente road; maybe the pigs are napping.) It’s bare land, hard by a desiccated stand of eucalyptus bisected by a road that leads to Velocity Paintball. Across the road sits a wood-framed house, faded mauve, and a few blocks away there are shanties with broken aluminum siding and rusty roofs. As I approach downtown Ramona, I see a mobile-home park with a bulbous old propane tank parked out front, looming like a big white submarine. It reads “Ramona Terrace Estates” and has a smiley face painted on it. There are power lines everywhere.
According to Jerry Myers, a retiree who moved to Ramona in 1971 to breed horses, this is a rural paradise that will be despoiled by Sol Orchard’s project. “Why don’t we go put it in a national park?” he fumes.
I challenge Myers’s analogy. “Does Ramona really have the beauty of a national park?”
“You bet,” he says. “We’ve got the mountains on both sides, we’ve got the little houses out there, cows out there grazing. We’ve got the dairy down the street producing milk for people’s consumption, an egg ranch over on the other side of the valley producing eggs for the people. Got the dog kennel up in the back.”
Will Pritchard, project manager for Sol Orchard, says, “It’s a pretty gritty agricultural area. It’s not wide-open spaces like, say, Santa Ysabel.” Sounding a diplomatic note, he adds, “Everything has its own charm, and [the things that] make it nice, we’re not going to be messing with. Neighbors who look across the road will still see 500–1000 feet of open space with cows on it, a little solar, and a nice hill range behind it. That’s not changing.”
Although the specter of aesthetic degradation is the opposition’s leitmotif, Brennecke is candid about tactics. “What you try to do is throw as many arguments [as you can] up against the wall and see what sticks. There are about five different objections.”
Brennecke claims that the site’s topography presents inherent, potential safety hazards that Sol Orchard’s plans fail to adequately mitigate. “The 100-year flood plain overlaps their facility. Since 1978 there have been three rain events that have put enough water on that land to make the water flow over Ramona streets. Their facility will be at risk, because electrical energy is gathered and then goes into an underground conduit, where it could flood. Someone could get electrocuted. Another problem is the huge eucalyptus grove to the east. I don’t think it’s ever burned. The Witch Creek Fire missed their proposed site by 300 feet to the south.”
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.”
Brennecke insists that the land to be shaded by the panels is “good land.”
“Why would you cover 42.7 acres of viable farmland?” he says. While admitting that the property has a high water table with excessive salts, “there are a lot of ornamental species, nursery operations that can tolerate those conditions. You can make it productive.” But he confesses to confusion about the relative economic viability of fallow ground, with or without solar panels. “I don’t know what the truth is. But I know what my property will be worth when the solar panels go in — it’s gonna be worth less.” He’s quick to add, “Money is only one facet of it. I mean, that’s really a small component.
“The reason I’m here is because of the intangibles. It’s a nice place to be. It’s picturesque. Would you prefer to purchase a house that had a view of a pasture or a view of an industrial complex? You see solar panels on a small scale, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but if this 42.7-acre proposal were one building, it would never be approved. It’s too large. It doesn’t fit into the character of the area.
“People want development and the extra money that development brings, but there’s gonna come a time when we’ll have to start importing food to support our population. Producing solar energy by putting panels on productive agricultural areas is not an appropriate use. We have a deficit in this country of farmland, so why would you put more of it under asphalt, concrete, or solar panels? You’re taking what could be productive land out of use. You don’t even think about it, because you have, at least right now, a reservoir of other farms that are producing the food that you eat. I don’t think people are really long-range thinkers. They just want to make the quick buck. They’ll do the economically expedient thing at their own peril.”
Brennecke also criticizes the project on technical grounds. “They’re not the most efficient [solar] panels. Maybe something better will come along in ten years that will make these absolutely obsolete.” He says, “[Meanwhile] I think we should put as much solar on rooftops as you can accommodate.” Although he acknowledges that solar fields are more cost-efficient than scattered rooftop panels, he says, “I don’t think the project is necessary, because it’s onerous at this site.”
As for promised benefits to consumers, he’s skeptical. “Everyone is claiming that solar will be cheaper, and yet I hear other people in the industry, like SDG&E, whose engineers say that our bill is going to go up 20 percent. You have the technical capability of making abundant energy cheaply, but whether that’s actually passed on to the consumer is another matter entirely.”
Despite decisive administrative defeats, Brennecke is not resigned to green energy in his neighborhood. “Just because the supervisors want this, and they’re directing their staff to grease the wheels, and the commissioners concur, and then the supervisors approve it — that doesn’t necessarily mean that a challenge in court is going to be without merit.”
Will Pritchard doesn’t see the merit. “I think it’s just straight-up sort of NIMBY-style opposition. We’re just one of a dozen projects that this group [Citizens for a Rural Ramona] has gone after. They weren’t organized because of our project, we just happened to end up across the street from them.
“It’s a great project for a number of reasons. Ramona has exactly what we want in a solar resource, mainly because of its elevation and population. There are a lot of factors that go into viability, the most important of which is the solar resource — the number of hours of sunlight we can count on. In San Diego County, that has a lot to do with your elevation. If you’re down in the marine layer in San Diego, you immediately lose a third of the production you’d have if you were, say, in Ramona. Bousema’s site is clearly ideal in all respects for solar.
“You need to understand every aspect of the grid in that area, and you need to look for suitable land. What scale of project are you talking about? This is a small- to medium-size project, 7.5 megawatt, around the upper limit of what you can tie into a regular distribution line. [These are the same lines that serve your house; they’re not high-voltage transmission lines.] In Ramona you’ve got a substation that’s about a mile from our project, and we’re on a main feeder, one of about eight or nine circuits that goes out of the substation. If you wanted to connect with one of the high-voltage transmission lines — to make that viable, the project would have to be much larger. And for solar, that requires a lot of land....
“Yes,” concedes Pritchard, “the utilities have signed enough contracts with folks like us out in the desert, and all over the place. But as some projects fall out, others come along to take their place. It’s really up to the utility what they buy. It’s vital for the California mandate. Utilities don’t get to count what’s on your or my rooftops that we own — they have to go out and purchase renewable power.”
What about the piecemealing argument?
“It’s a nonstarter. It’s kind of like saying you need a permit for every gas station in the county at the same time — it just doesn’t hold water. They’re all individual projects with individual agreements. We’d put together a proposal to SDG&E to do 50 megawatts broken down into 21 PPAs [power purchase agreements]. At a very early stage of development, many of those fell through. We’re now down to 22 megawatts out of 50, seven or eight PPAs.”
Pritchard maintains that the solar installations will prove both economically and environmentally copacetic. “We certainly will pay Mark more than he would get for leasing it out for oat hay, probably double. We found him, but he was also contacted by a couple of other firms. There’s a market out there. We’re not the only solar developers. He’s one of the few people that’s not holding on to his land to turn it into a housing project. He’s got a viable operation that he thinks will last for the next 50 years. He built that operation with buffering space in mind and nothing could be a better buffering space than solar. Currently, the site’s 50 percent cattle-grazing, which is going to remain.”
As to the opponents’ contention that the project will “take productive land out of agriculture,” Pritchard says, “I disagree. The oat-hay farming, from the landowner’s perspective, is probably just weed control. It doesn’t maintain that property owner’s income, that’s for sure. His hog farm does; and once again, the hog farm remains. Our lease payment to him is not going to become the new, underlying economic activity there, but it can help him stay in business.”
Pritchard also notes, “The area is actually zoned for San Diego’s most intensive agricultural uses, especially animal-raising. It allows unlimited numbers of animals, and the neighbors who are upset about the project have dog kennels, some with over 100 dogs, and chicken ranches, as well as a paintball park.”
The adamant opposition puzzles Pritchard. “I don’t much understand it. We have a virtually identical project in Valley Center that was supported by the local community-planning group. I can’t tell you why one group got comfortable with one project and the other group didn’t. In Valley Center, folks asking us questions were also interested in listening to our answers. In Ramona, that wasn’t the case. We happen to work with consultants — folks who live there — and they give us a little different perspective on local politics. I don’t believe that when three people from a community of 45,000 show up and talk negatively about the project, they automatically represent the overwhelming view of that community. For example, at the board of supervisors meeting, there were 10 or 12 people who spoke against the project — again, in a community of 45,000. I don’t consider that to be a big uproar from the community.”
Jerry Myers minces no words. “Wrong project in the wrong place — is that plain enough? Property values are gonna go down. It’s gonna be 43.7 acres of solar fields. If you’re across the street from a 50,000-square-foot building in an agricultural area, it will depreciate your property. Whenever the solar panels are flat, it will be 43 acres of flat surface; it will be a complete rooftop, 43 acres — and you couldn’t put in that many houses. We’re very pro-agriculture [but] this is not agriculture. This area is heavy agriculture, [zoned] A-72a, which is for breeding and raising, having dairies, having kennels — stuff to that effect. Now, if you step back about ten years ago, there was a conglomerate here in Ramona that wanted to turn this into a golf course. The county said, ‘No, it’s a commercial venture.’”
So is this project not a commercial venture?
“We’re not against solar. More power to ’em. But not in an agricultural area where you’re gonna take land out of production. We’re losing acreage every year in the state of California to commercialism. The solar guys approached three different dairies up here, and they all turned him down. They said, ‘We need the agriculture land to raise the barley, to raise this, to raise that, to produce the milk to make a living.’”
But aren’t dairies, dog kennels, and pig farms all “commercial” ventures — entities intended to make money?
“No. That’s agriculture.”
What about paintball? Is that agriculture?
“No,” he concedes, “but that’s in a rented space. They can leave at any time. Once this solar field goes in, it’s 25 years.”
When reminded that the pig farm will remain in operation, Myers fusses, “The solar panels are going to surround the pig farm. If you’ve got 43 acres of solar panels, you’re gonna have weeds underneath it. They’re gonna sterilize the land, so the weeds won’t grow. Is that screwin’ the land? You’re darn right it is! When I asked Mark [Bousema], ‘Why are you doing this to your neighbors?,’ he said, ‘Jerry, I need the money.’ I’m here 365 days a year. When I look there, I’ll see 43 acres of solar panels. He lives in Escondido in a gated community with avocados. He won’t see it.”
For his part, Bousema defers to his lessee. “I’d love to talk to you, but I told Sol Orchard that I’d keep my mouth shut. I’ll just let them do the talking. But I do feel bad that my neighbors are upset. I can see some of their perspectives.”
Jerry Myers’s perspective, his veritable mantra, is “agriculture, agriculture, agriculture.” He asks, “Why did the county designate it — in 1890-something — as ‘agricultural’ land if they wanted it to be used for solar fields? We’re against changing the agricultural aspect of this valley into an industrial/commercial venture.”
Are solar panels industrial?
“Sure,” he says. “It’s making money.”
Don’t you make money raising animals?
“Yeah,” Myers says. “But it’s agriculture.”
Like Brennecke, Myers has strong aesthetic objections. “You’ll have the sky, you’ll have the hills, but when you look down, you’re gonna have solar panels. They’re gonna supposedly put in certain trees, an eight-foot chain-link fence with slats in it, foliage…but if you go up [Highway] 101 by Soledad, you see trees, you see this, you see that — and you see a prison behind it. Well, you’re gonna see this behind it. Everybody in this area will be able to look over the fence and see the solar panels. We don’t want it in agricultural land. This will be as big as the Ramona Airport. What I’m really against is Mark imposing this blight on local people here in Ramona, in this valley. Forty-three acres of panels pointed east or west is not gonna be pretty. Go down in the desert, and you see those areas. They’re not pretty.”
Myers urges, “Take it down the road on Creelman, where there’s nothing out there. Nobody will see it.”
He does admit that the Warnock Road site is more pragmatic.
“That’s right. Sol Orchard says they have to be within five miles of a substation and close to a transmission line. The line runs right alongside the property, goes to the substation, and then to the grid. They’re using Bousema’s property because it’s cheaper. It’s closer to the substation, it’s flat, they won’t have to do as much grading. You betcha.”
But wouldn’t locating the solar project on Creelman also change the “aggie” nature of the Ramona Valley?
Myers has an answer for that: “It’s not pristine, flat, productive land like this is.”
He says, “I don’t know why the union’s interested [in stopping the project]. I’m just happy they’re doing it, because it’s their money instead of mine.” He adds, “There’s been two different judges [this is all hearsay to me now] that’s looked at this and said, ‘Sol Orchard cannot win this one if the union goes at them aggressively.’”
Myers rejects the factual findings made by the county. “That [environmental-quality] thing was sloppy. The county said that they found ‘no significant Indian artifacts,’ which is a lie. There are Indian artifacts there…not a lot, but some. Right across the street, on Ramona Street, at the far end of the 100 acres, there’s outcroppings of rock with all kinds of grinding holes. They found ‘no burrowing owls’ but there are. Everything they found was ‘insignificant’ to stop the project.
Myers is unconcerned by extant squalor. “Across the street at the old dairy, there is a bunch of junk, but it’s not going to depreciate the neighbors’ property value.” What worries him is that the value of his tract will drop when the solar project arrives. “Say my place is valued at $1,000,000 today and five years from now. If that thing goes in, it’s going to be valued at $750,000.”
Can you blame a guy for wanting to make more money from his land?
“Yes,” Myers says. “I can blame him because he’s screwin’ the neighbors, he’s screwin’ Ramona. There’s nobody that I’ve talked to in my ‘little people’ world that’s been in favor of this project at this spot.”
Is this attitude NIMBYism?
“That’s what Sol Orchard is saying. If I lived in Timbuktu and I knew about this project, I’d still be as much against it. It’s agriculture, it’s a pasture, it’s the heritage of the forefathers. My street’s named after Warnock — he was the developer in this area. Before him, it was just Indians. Warnock would turn over in his grave because it’s robbing our heritage. This used to be the turkey capital of the world. Well, someplace back East could do it cheaper.”
What about free enterprise?
Rankled, Myers snaps, “Well, if that’s the way you wanna look at it. You ask the guy from Sol Orchard, ‘Will all of this electricity stay in Ramona?’ If he tells you ‘yes,’ he’s a bald-faced liar. How can it? Are they gonna put isotopes on it? Are they gonna color-code it, something that makes sure that it all stays here?”
Myers admits, however, that a guarantee of local utilization wouldn’t change his stance. “I’m against the whole damn thing because of what they’re doing to this beautiful field. It don’t need to be over there.”
Pritchard sounds unfazed by the lawsuit. “It’s not gonna go to court.” Delays by dint of injunctive relief? “I don’t think that’s going to happen either,” he says, adding that there are no plans to speed construction.
Sol Orchard is scheduled to break ground this summer, with the project on line during the first quarter of 2014. The folks there think the outlook is sunny.
Pritchard says, “Wait until you see the landscaping we’ll put in. It’s going to be significant and impressive. I live in an area in the Sacramento Valley where they have very similar projects, in the 2–20 megawatt range. They’re done in agricultural settings, with neighbors next door, with virtually no landscaping in front of them. You drive by them and say, ‘Huh — interesting.’ Solar-energy projects don’t pollute the ground, emit greenhouse gases, or generate traffic. They’re pretty benign. And property values won’t go down.”
Jerry Myers is unimpressed. “You can’t pet a solar panel or make a hamburger from it.”
Nota bene: San Diego County officials refused requests for comment on this story.