• Steve Brown

Rural Desert Residents finally get the protection they sought 1.5 years ago

Union representatives waiting to speak against RECE 4.10 in Joshua Tree, watch Terri Rahhal, Planning Director for Land Use Services, provide the initial staff report at the special meeting on February 28, 2019.
Union representatives waiting to speak against RECE 4.10 in Joshua Tree, watch Terri Rahhal, Planning Director for Land Use Services, provide the initial staff report at the special meeting on February 28, 2019.

Despite a strong, well coordinated presence by union locals and the utility scale renewable energy industry, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors adopted the more stringent language covering renewable energy development that reflected the concerns of rural desert residents, during its special meeting on February 28, 2019.

The Renewable Energy Conservation Element (RECE) 4.10 that was passed in a 4 to 1 vote, was essentially the same language the Board of Supervisors had sent to the Planning Commission for its review in August, 2017. Land Use Services initially stalled the review process while Planning Director Terri Rahhal held private meetings with renewable energy developers after the public comment period on the language had closed. The result of those private meetings was the creation of an "alternative" RECE 4.10 language, supported by Land Use Services, that placed the priorities of the industry over those of county residents.

In May, 2018, the Planning Commission approved the original RECE 4.10 language after a full day of public comments, nearly all in favor of adopting the language. RECE 4.10 was then sent to the Board of Supervisors for their review on election day in November, 2018, but then-supervisor James Ramos was AWOL for the meeting. With Ramos resigning from the board to take his new seat in the state assembly, and a questionable process that led to appointment of his replacement, the RECE 4.10 language was then continued until the February 28, 2019 meeting, a full year-and-a-half after the Board of Supervisors had asked to have it sent to the Planning Commission. This allowed a number of projects to file their applications before the new, more restrictive language, was adopted.

The original RECE 4.10 policy, prohibits utility-oriented renewable energy projects within Rural Living land use districts, as well as within the boundaries of existing community plans, as follows:

RE Policy 4.10: Prohibit utility-oriented RE project development on sites that would create adverse impacts on the quality of life or economic development opportunities in existing unincorporated communities.

 RE 4.10.1: Prohibit development of utility-oriented RE projects in the Rural Living land use districts throughout the County.

 RE 4.10.2: Prohibit development of utility-oriented RE projects within the boundaries of existing community plans, which at the time of adoption of this Element are the Bloomington, Muscoy, Bear Valley, Crest Forest, Hilltop, Lake Arrowhead, Lytle Creek, Oak Glen, Homestead Valley, Joshua Tree, Lucerne Valley, Morongo Valley, Oak Hills and Phelan/Pinon Hills Community Plans.

 RE 4.10.3: Establish exclusion areas in the Development Code regulations for renewable energy development, beginning with the prohibitions in Policies 4.10.1 and 4.10.2 and provide for additional exclusion areas, such as new community plan areas, to be designated by amendment to the Development Code.

The adopted RECE 4.10 language noted that projects could seek a change in Rural living designation, or in community plan boundaries, in order to site their projects. This was disappointing to some rural desert residents who had hoped this new language would provide them with the security of absolutely knowing developments could not occur in those areas, though the provision seems to follow existing land use policy in the county. Forcing developers to seek a change in zoning or community plan boundaries makes siting a project within Rural Living or community plan zones lengthier, and more costly.

Union members and representatives of the utility scale renewable energy development industry were on hand in force at all three locations where public comment could be given during the meeting. Two men who identified themselves as union members, were present at the Joshua Tree location. They sat apart from residents through the meeting, then quickly departed after providing their comments.

The message from the unions and industry was direct: jobs. Large utility scale renewable energy projects create lots of construction jobs, but few permanent jobs. The unions reminded the supervisors construction jobs are always temporary, though they sounded dismissive of any concerns brought up by residents. This got them scolded by one resident who noted that between herself and her husband, they had nearly a century of union membership, and now found themselves retired and facing the possibility of having their property values driven down and their quality of life sacrificed by fellow union members.

Meanwhile, residents of communities already coping with, and likely to bear the future brunt of utility scale renewable energy development in the county - Lucerne Valley, Newberry Springs, Daggett, as well as Joshua Tree, Pioneertown, Hesperia, and Apple Valley, lined up to convey their support for the original, protective language of RECE 4.10.

These weren't the impeccably dressed urban PR flacks from the industry. They were the real people - the small business owners, real estate agents, and retirees, who conveyed not only their support for the RECE 4.10 language, but their deep love for the desert, and their serious personal concerns.

"I looked forward to a place that would be my forever home," one desert resident said, noting she found it in Lucerne Valley. "Once you get the sand of Lucerne Valley in your shoes, you'll never leave."

But as she detailed her desert experience of living in Lucerne Valley for over 40 years, she concluded, "Now you want to surround me with solar panels? How dare you."

Desert residents talked of the impacts of existing solar projects in their communities - a woman who can't sell her home near one project after the rodents and other wildlife that were displaced by the project took up residence on her property and in her home. Or the electrical explosion in 2017 at one project near Camp Rock Road in Lucerne Valley with its "huge flash of light" that blinded motorists and sent the speaker off into the desert to avoid an accident. The gates at the project site were locked, leaving firefighters unable to reach the fire for four or five hours. The resident noted that in the desert, with its high winds, incidents such as that could devastate anything, and anyone, downwind.

Other residents noted that solar projects that are moving forward are sited directly across the road from their homes. "Rural communities are under siege," said Brian Hammer of Lucerne Valley, who faces the possibility of a large scale project sited less than 50 feet from his home. Sue Hammer took exception to the misleading description used in the project's Environmental Impact Report to describe their rural community that would be impacted. She noted that not only was the written description written to minimize the impact and number of residents impacted, but the photos accompanying it were purposefully taken to mislead as well. She added there is no consideration for compensation for residents when 250,000 solar panels 12 feet high will surround their homes.

"The skewed information coming out of the building department (Land Use Services) is shameful," Hammer concluded, not alone in noting the pro-industry bias of Land Use Services throughout the review process. Numerous speakers took issue with Rahhal's inclusion of material provided by the industry in her staff presentation to the Board of Supervisors.

Other desert residents made strong points noting that there is no real mitigation for these projects once their 20-30 year productive lives have been concluded; that the power generated leaves the area; and that there are realistic, and significant health concerns for those near and downwind of these projects, ranging from the impacts of inhaling PM10 and PM2.5, to Valley Fever (which has increased incidence when soils are disturbed and dust is generated).

One Realtor working in Lucerne Valley noted she had a $1.8 million deal that would not be signed unless RECE 4.10 was passed to provide protection. Meanwhile, frustrated farmers who have seen their water supplies diminish dramatically in recent years, clearly wanted the ability to sell their lands to solar power developers.

But throughout the self interest and comments from all sides, one thread came through - the retired and the poor could not afford to move in order to avoid the negative effects from utility scale renewable energy production. One woman, a 20 year Newberry Springs resident with COPD noted she'd like to move before her property became worthless, but can't find anywhere affordable to relocate to, even if she could find a buyer for her property. "I'm so disgusted," she said, berating the "poor union people," noting that they were only concerned with their own welfare, not that of residents. "I'm going to be housebound," she added, should a project be sited near her.

Social and economic justice played a part in the testimony. Another resident told the Board of Supervisors, "If this looks like it's going to destroy my property values, I've gotta get out of here." Others noted that utility scale renewable power projects provide very little in the way of revenue to the county, while noting tourism is endangered by their development, a perspective backed by academic studies of what draws people to visit the desert.

"Property owners should not have to give up our property values for somebody else to make a profit," one emphasized, while another noted, "This is a classic case of the rich stealing from the poor."

By the end of the public comment period, it was apparent Supervisor Robert Lovingood was ready to call for the board to adopt the original RECE 4.10 language.

"If we don't adopt this," Lovingood told his fellow supervisors, "that's just spitting in their face."

Lovingood was joined by three other supervisors in voting for the original RECE 4.10 language, including the Third District's Dawn Rowe, who noted in an email to Mojave Watch that she had spent time prior to the meeting learning about the science of desert soils with award-winning naturalist Pat Flanagan and desert plant botanist Robin Kobaly. Rowe did an admirable job of representing Third District residents on the RECE 4.10 issue.

Only Supervisor Curt Hagman voted against adopting the RECE 4.10 language, based on concerns about upcoming new renewable technologies and how they would be impacted by the restrictions, as well as the criteria used by Land Use Services to determine what constituted utility scale projects.

While the adoption of the RECE 4.10 language into the General Plan was a win for rural desert residents, there are still a number of projects whose application process either began before the RECE 4.10 restrictions were originally drafted, or whose applications were accepted during the 1.5 years that it took for the approval process. In addition, projects based on state and federal lands may still impact residents.

As the science of desert soils, and plant-fungal communities within those soils, increasingly demonstrates how these communities work to sequester carbon in the soil, and how they not only stop sequestering carbon, but begin releasing previously sequestered carbon when the plants are cleared or killed to make way for utility scale renewable energy projects, it raises the question as to whether any viable desert habitat should be destroyed for construction of these projects. If reducing our carbon footprint is the goal of renewable energy, then siting energy projects only on rooftops and brownfield/previously developed lands may be the only productive option.

LA Times coverage

San Bernardino Sun coverage

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