Planning Commission discusses solar energy facility comprehensive plan

Members of the county’s Planning Commission called for a comprehensive plan for locating solar energy facilities in unincorporated San Diego County.

Although the Oct. 19 comments were themselves not part of an official vote, the commissioners approved the Sol Orchard project in southern Ramona which led to the desire for a comprehensive plan. Staff from the county’s Department of Planning and Development Services will research plans from other counties, the recent U.S. Department of the Interior plan calling for 17 solar energy areas including two in California, and current planned projects throughout San Diego County.

“It’s a critical infrastructure issue,” said Planning Commissioner Peder Norby. “It’s just as critical as transportation infrastructure.”

Sol Orchard would utilize approximately 42.7 acres of a 110-acre farm which currently includes swine, oat hay, and grazing land; the swine and grazing land would remain while the photovoltaic panels would replace the oat hay area. The farm fronts both Ramona Street and Warnock Drive; energy from the site would be delivered to an existing 12 kilovolt distribution line which runs parallel to Warnock Drive.

Since the only frontage road work required would be to taper for an acceleration/deceleration area from the ultimate right-of-way line to the existing edge of Ramona Street’s pavement, utility undergrounding of the frontage was not required. No nexus was found to require widening that portion of Ramona Street to its ultimate right-of-way width. The farm owner would also be required to designate a 10 foot wide non-motorized pathway within the road right-of-way for Warnock Drive and Ramona Street and that trail area would be improved to the satisfaction of the county’s Department of Parks and Recreation, although no relocation of existing power poles or utility boxes would be required and the pathway width may be reduced in those areas.

Ramona Community Planning Group member Kristi Mansolf noted that the project is in a high-visibility location. “Location is an important consideration,” she said. “Long-term planning to integrate solar facilities into Ramona needs to be done.”

Sol Orchard representatives met with planning group members during various meetings, including two this year where the planning group unanimously recommended denial of the project. “We encouraged them to look in the outlying areas,” said planning group chair Jim Piva.

“There are areas that could be a perfect fit for this project,” Piva said. “I think they should have looked at alternatives.”

Sol Orchard vice president Will Pritchard told the Planning Commission that location requirements included being within five miles of a substation and having direct access to a main distribution feeder. The alternative sites Sol Orchard considered either did not meet those requirements or had conservation easements or existing development. The Sol Orchard site is one mile from a substation.

Warnock Drive resident Donna Myers asked the Planning Commission for additional time so that the community planning group can develop a master plan to include solar facilities within Ramona. San Vicente Road resident Kathy DaSilva noted that county Department of Public Works deputy director Donna Turbyfill offered the former Pamo Landfill site, which is 4.8 miles from a substation, for solar energy use.

Although Norby voted in favor of the Ramona permit, he recognized the need for a comprehensive plan and cited the Department of the Interior plan which specifies areas for solar energy projects and areas not suitable for such projects. “I think we should take the lead from the federal government,” Norby said.

Norby expects that development of a comprehensive plan, possibly involving community master plans, will take two to three years to develop. “I think the earlier we get started the better off we will be,” he said. “The intent is to get in front of it.”

The concept of a community master plan is not unprecedented; some communities have developed master plans for wireless communication sites. Planning Commissioner Michael Beck compared such a plan to the Multiple Species Conservation Program. “It’s pretty important to generate that consistency,” Beck said.

Beck noted that identifying specific areas would provide guidelines for future specific projects. “We need to have a fight up front,” he said.

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