• Steve Brown

SBC Planning Commission votes to send original renewable energy language to Supervisors

David Fick of the Morongo Basin Conservation Association makes his public comment during the Planning Commission meeting remotely from county offices in Joshua Tree.

Despite the best efforts of Land Use Services Planning Director Terri Rahhal to stall and modify San Bernardino County's original Renewable Energy Conservation Element section 4.10 language that sets limits on where utility scale renewable energy projects can be sited and protects rural desert communities, the Planning Commission voted unanimously to send the original 4.10 language to the Board of Supervisors. It was a clear upset of Rahhal's plan to water down restrictions that protect desert residents in favor of the interests of the renewable energy industry.

The saga of the RECE 4.10 language began on August 8, 2017 when the Board of Supervisors directed LUS staff to present the section to the Planning Commission for its review. What could have been a simple presentation to the Planning Commission that could have followed this directive, turned into a nearly 10 month odyssey involving Rahhal hosting private meetings with industry representatives after the public comment period for the language had concluded.

Rahhal's decision to host private meetings with industry and then her decision to propose and recommend substituting industry-friendly language in place of protections for residents led a number of those commenting yesterday to question the ethics of her methods. In addition, the delay in bringing the RECE 4.10 language to the Planning Commission also allowed some projects to apply and advance while no restrictions were in place, allowing thousands of acres of projects to advance when the original 4.10 language would likely have prevented their consideration.

The question of whether Rahhal purposefully stalled the presentation of the 4.10 language to the Planning Commission to allow projects to proceed before any of the language's restrictions could be implemented was quite evidently on the minds of some residents making their public comments. In the county offices in Joshua Tree, where I watched the full day's worth of proceedings, there was open discussion of the ethical issues presented by Land Use Services' decision to delay presentation, meet privately with industry, approve project applications while the language was kept in limbo, and then craft and recommend an industry-friendly version of the language.

Though Rahhal noted that residents of rural desert communities that stood to be negatively impacted by utility scale solar power projects were adamantly for serious restrictions on where these projects could be located, and that the original 4.10 language, as restrictive as it is, wasn't as restrictive as residents had wanted, the final staff recommended revision of the 4.10 language was crafted to omit the protections for residents that were included in the original language. In their place was language that was industry-friendly and written like a PR piece for the solar power industry, with the only requirements for industry being essentially to follow existing laws like CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act), while playing up how industry must inform communities about the "benefits" of having several square miles of desert transformed from rural living to industrial use.

Rahhal's presentation to the Planning Commission stressed that these industrial power projects could be sited on land zoned Rural Living because the projects were considered "interim" use, only temporary, to eventually be returned to a status equal to, or better than, the state of the land prior to development. Using Rahhal's definition of "interim," every use of the land is interim. Human beings are only present on the planet in an interim form.

Desert residents, not surprisingly, took a different perspective, noting that 20 to 30 years could equal the rest of their lives. Around 60 residents, mostly from Newberry Springs, Lucerne Valley, and Joshua Tree, provided public comment during the all-day Planning Commission meeting. It appeared all but one or two residents (including in that total one farmer whom, it was noted by another speaker, was hoping to sell his land for solar project development), spoke in favor of retaining the original language for review by the Board of Supervisors. The majority of those making public comments had traveled to San Bernardino in person, but comments were made remotely from county offices in Joshua Tree and Hesperia.

Planning Commissioner Paul Smith of Twentynine Palms noted that he had visited a number of existing sites and areas that could be developed around Lucerne Valley and Newberry Springs/Daggett, and was concerned about the potential of aeolian (airborne) dust, including PM-10 and smaller particulate matter that can cause health problems for residents downwind of the source. Smith said during his visits he was made aware of a number of negative impacts to communities that could result from large scale utility grade projects, but wasn't clear on the benefits they provided residents.

Industry and union representatives spoke in favor of the industry-friendly staff-recommended version of the RECE 4.10 language. None were from the desert. One industry representative emphasized property rights of landowners who may want to sell their lands for development, despite being zoned Rural Living. She ignored the fact that landowners had purchased their property as zoned - not industrial land, and also ignored the possibility that landowners near projects might also have property rights of their own. In general, industry and union representatives came across as being callously indifferent to the lives and homes of desert residents as long as temporary jobs were created and their projects could go forward unrestricted.

The industry and union representatives who were dismissive of the concerns of residents did not appear to make friends among desert residents through their testimony. Some residents who noted they were either former or present union members called out the union representatives for their disregard for the communities in the desert, while others noted job development doesn't just happen through temporary construction jobs.

Tourism and scenic highway corridors were concepts introduced by residents as being incompatible with large scale utility power projects. In a recent public scoping meeting for the Daggett Solar Project which would surround the airport in Daggett (which also serves as the flight base for Fort Irwin's fixed wing and rotary aircraft) on three sides, the project was allowed to move forward by Land Use Services without any preliminary discussion as to the potential complications to civilian and military use of the airport, or any coordination with the historical Route 66 corridor. The FAA, Department of Defense, Fort Irwin, National Park Service, and Bureau of Land Management hadn't been consulted at all, though a project like this could result in the airport becoming unusable and a historic corridor near a national monument could become degraded.

A number of desert residents were clearly disheartened by the fact Land Use Services had recommended its own newly created industry-friendly version of the RECE 4.10 language while disregarding a massive amount of public input from residents in creation of the original version. Others noted that existing projects had engaged in illegal grading of land during their construction (with little consequence from the county as a result), and were not maintained as required by the county, raising the question of whether the county could be relied upon to ensure future projects would be held to their obligations if current projects were not.

Residents also noted that forcing these projects upon less affluent rural communities constituted an issue of social justice. Residents near, or downwind of projects, could expect to see their property values drop, when home equity often constitutes a large percentage of net worth for rural homeowners. The drop in values would also result in a drop in property tax revenues for the county, offsetting any incoming revenues from projects. But, residents noted, it also could result in the loss of their enjoyment of their own homes, and the homes of their family members nearby. It could degrade their quality of life, and pose health hazards for residents.

With five o'clock bearing heavily on the minds of commissioners who had respectfully conducted the day-long meeting, Commissioner Smith made a motion to forward the original RECE 4.10 language to the Board of Supervisors along with a couple of staff-recommended additions that pertained to including existing energy generation sites as potentially suitable for future development, and county cooperation with federal and state agencies on projects. Commissioners made one additional recommendation that the Board of Supervisors consider whether the original 4.10 language is too restrictive, but unanimously passed Smith's motion.

Whether Land Use Services decides to try to sabotage adoption of the original 4.10 language by the Board of Supervisors remains to be seen, but residents felt a victory was won yesterday. The Planning Commission heard the concerns of county residents, despite Land Use Services' attempt to subvert protections for themselves and their homes. As a result, a county renewable energy policy that places priority on its residents and taxpayers is a little more likely. For that, rural desert residents are grateful.

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