• Steve Brown

San Bernardino County considers renewable energy code this week

Updated: Feb 26, 2019

A solar power site near Newberry Springs.
A solar power site near Newberry Springs.

It appears the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors will consider the Renewable Energy Conservation Element (RECE) 4.10 language that was sent to the Planning Commission for review in August 2017. The original RECE 4.10 language sets restrictions on where utility scale renewable energy projects may be sited, and helps protect rural desert residents and communities. The odyssey the language has undergone in order to get to this point, where it arrives back in front of the Board of Supervisors for their review, before being adopted as part of the county's General Plan, has been Homeric.

The Board of Supervisors is holding a special meeting to review, and amend/adopt RECE 4.10 on Thursday, February 28, at 10 a.m. in the Temporary Covington Chambers, First Floor, County Government Center, 385 North Arrowhead Avenue, in San Bernardino.

We strongly recommend that desert residents, and those concerned about desert development issues across San Bernardino County, make their voices heard during this Board of Supervisors meeting, and contact your supervisor directly as well. We urge support for the adoption of the original version of RECE 4.10.

Board of Supervisors contact information can be found HERE.

Any person interested in viewing or addressing the Board during the meeting by interactive video (the Board members may see as well as hear speakers) may do so at the Bob Burke Joshua Tree Government Center, 63665 29 Palms Highway, Joshua Tree, or the Jerry Lewis High Desert Government Center, 15900 Smoke Tree Street, Hesperia.

If anyone intends to submit documentation to the Board for its consideration prior to the meeting, eight copies of such documentation should be submitted to the Clerk of the Board of Supervisors, 385 North Arrowhead Avenue, 2nd Floor, San Bernardino, CA  92415-0130, no later than 5 p.m. the day before the meeting. Any documentation submitted at the alternate locations shall become part of the official record for the matter, but will not be disseminated to the Board prior to the Board’s action on such matter.

The Agenda for the Special Meeting may be viewed HERE.

The original version of the RECE 4.10 language, was highly protective of rural desert residents and communities, but was thought by many desert residents as not going far enough in protecting them, their health, their quality of life, and their property values. Here's the staff analysis provided by the county for this Board of Supervisors review:

Original Approach to Policy 4.10: The Draft RECE presented to the Planning Commission in 2016 did not contain Policy 4.10. Much of the public testimony at the 2016 hearing stressed a clear preference for roof-top and parking lot applications for solar energy, and also stated public concerns about environmental impacts and land use conflicts related to utility-oriented RE projects near desert communities. The Planning Commission encouraged staff to add clarifying language to address public concerns discussed in the hearing. In an effort to minimize impacts on communities, staff recommended Policy 4.10 (Exhibit A) to prohibit utility-oriented RE projects in community plan areas and in the Rural Living (RL) land use district.

EXHIBIT A – Original proposal for Policy 4.10 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.

Terri Rahhal, Planning Director for Land Use Services, noted that after the public comment period had closed for RECE 4.10, she continued hosting private meetings with renewable energy developers who felt their concerns hadn't been adequately voiced during that period. It was an accommodation apparently not afforded to concerned members of the public.

While Rahhal and Land Use Services stalled sending RECE 4.10 to the Planning Commission for review until a more industry-friendly alternative could be drafted and recommended for consideration, new utility scale solar power projects were allowed to move forward, unrestrained by the RECE 4.10 language.

The Planning Commission approved forwarding the original, more restrictive RECE 4.10 language to the Board of Supervisors, during their meeting on May 24, 2018. Overwhelming support for the original RECE 4.10 language was voiced by desert residents during the full day meeting. The Planning Commission did note that it would be up to the Board of Supervisors to consider any alterations to the language if they found it too restrictive.

You can read the Minutes for the Planning Commission meeting HERE.

The Board of Supervisors were slated to review RECE 4.10 in their regularly scheduled meeting on Election Day in November, 2018. However, Supervisor James Ramos went AWOL on the meeting, focusing on his state assembly contest while neglecting his Third District constituents. The review was rescheduled for January, after Ramos' appointed replacement would be seated, but another supervisor could not make the January meeting, so this special meeting was scheduled for the review, making it over a year-and-a-half since the Board of Supervisors originally sent RECE 4.10 to be reviewed by the Planning Commission.

Land Use Services is continuing to push for a re-evaluation of RECE 4.10 to make it less restrictive and more industry-friendly. Here is the staff report:

Reasons for Re-Evaluating Policy 4.10:

At the Board hearing on August 8, 2017, the RE (renewable energy) industry came out in opposition to Policy 4.10 because it was too restrictive, while comments from the public were intensely opposed to utility-oriented RE development projects. The public comments focused on Policy 5.2 being too permissive. Many stated that utility-oriented RE should be permitted only in the five Development Focus Areas (DFAs) supported by the Board in its Resolution No. 2016- 20. After the public hearing, the Board adopted the RECE, omitting Policy 4.10 because it had not been reviewed by the Planning Commission. The Board gave direction to staff to present Policy 4.10 to the Planning Commission. After considering the public testimony from both sides, staff began to re-evaluate Policy 4.10 for the following reasons:

 Many existing RE generation sites would become non-conforming uses under Policy 4.10, which would limit the potential for substantial improvements, technology upgrades or expansion. This is contrary to the principles of the RECE which encourage technological advances and utilization of disturbed and developed sites for energy generation.

 Introduction of prohibition/exclusion areas would conflict with the standards-based approach to the other goals and policies of the RECE.

 RE generation is treated as an interim land use. Power purchase agreements have specified terms, and County use permits for RE facilities require decommissioning plans and securities to guarantee decommissioning and restoration of the site to a condition suitable for the end use indicated by the County land use designation; including Rural Living.

 Prohibitions related to specified zones and planning areas are based on mapping, rather than being related to site characteristics or site-specific circumstances. There will always be opportunities to propose zoning changes or modification of planning area boundaries, using site-specific information.

Going back to the premise of Policy 4.10 being about protecting the quality of life in existing communities, staff reached out to RE developers to bring community concerns to their attention and to discuss ways to reduce land use compatibility conflicts.

New Siting Recommendations:

As a partial solution to the non-conforming use issue that could arise for existing RE generation facilities, staff is recommending an amendment to Policy 5.2 to make it clear that an existing energy generation facility is an appropriate site for new RE development or upgrades. (Exhibit B).

New Recommendations for Policy 4.3.2 and 4.10:

The proposed revision to Policy 4.10 (Exhibit C) creates a framework for site-specific analysis of potential impacts and potential benefits of utility-oriented RE generation development on local residents. Compliance with the policy will require due diligence in site selection and project design. The proposed policy will go beyond standard development application requirements and environmental regulations. It will require interaction with local residents, especially neighboring property owners, in order to prepare an analysis and report of project-related benefits to the community and steps taken to enhance compatibility of the project with adjacent properties and the surrounding community. This report will, by necessity, be augmented as site design and environmental analyses proceed. The intent is to ensure that the relationship of the project to the community will be a significant consideration at every stage of project planning, beginning with application submittal.

Desert botanist and plant ecologist, Robin Kobaly, with an ancient nolina.
Desert botanist and plant ecologist, Robin Kobaly, with an ancient nolina.

Meanwhile, look for an LA Times story this week on RECE 4.10 and utility scale renewable energy development in the desert. There is emerging science being compiled and brought forth by desert botanist and plant ecologist, Robin Kobaly, which supports a simple approach toward managing the desert's role in combating climate change: leaving it alone and letting it sequester carbon. We'll have more on this science very soon.

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