Three advocacy groups consisting of mostly Livermore residents filed appeals last week to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors opposing the East County Board of Zoning Adjustments decision to approve a proposed 410-acre, utility-scale solar power plant north of Livermore.
"We're not anti-solar," said Chris O'Brien of Save North Livermore Valley, one of the organizations that filed an appeal. "Our issue is the location and the fact that they're pitting the natural environment -- which is very sensitive out here -- versus another environmental step forward, which is solar. Our point is: Do you have to destroy one to have the other? And we think the answer is no."
Friends of Livermore and Friends of Open Space & Vineyards submitted separate appeals as well, echoing similar sentiments in citing their objections to the Aramis Renewable Energy Project proposed by San Francisco-based Intersect Power -- which also filed its own appeal to the Board of Supervisors challenging multiple zoning board-imposed conditions of approval.
During its meeting on Nov. 24, the zoning board approved the plan to develop an estimated total of 580 acres of land, with 410 of those acres containing solar panels and support facilities approximately two miles north of the Livermore city limits and Interstate 580 in unincorporated Alameda County.
However, opponents argue that the development poses a threat to the natural environment of the rural area and violates provisions of Measure D, which was passed by voters in 2000 and aims to preserve agricultural land and open space in eastern Alameda County.
"I suppose if (the Board of Supervisors) approves the project, then (Save North Livermore Valley) will file a suit against the county and look for the courts to answer some of these questions, especially from our side where we think that this is a violation of the zoning and the county's own General Plan," O'Brien told the Weekly.
Tamara Reus of Friends of Open Space & Vineyards and David Rounds of Friends of Livermore both said that their respective groups would support a lawsuit filed against the county by Save North Livermore Valley if the issue reaches that point.
"Our basic opinion is that 320,000 solar panels is not a farm and it is not agriculture. It is a power plant, and you shouldn't be building power plants on some of the last undeveloped fertile soil in Alameda County," Rounds said.
One of the arguments presented by Friends of Open Space & Vineyards is that "the appeal time frame has been incorrectly calculated by the county." Following the Nov. 24 zoning board meeting, a 10-day appeal period began which made Dec. 4 the deadline to submit any appeals.
However, the Board of Zoning Adjustments made some modifications to the original resolution drafted by county planning staff and the final order was not issued until Dec. 3, giving the group less than 24 hours to review the changes and submit their appeal. Therefore, the group is arguing that the 10-day window should not have started until Dec. 3.
"It was a combination of a fairness issue and also a due process issue," Reus said. "If the period is supposed to run from the time a written order is actually finalized, then it would seem to me that -- as a matter of due process -- anybody who might be aggrieved by that should have that window to file," she continued, adding that she believes the argument was important to include in the appeal to make sure the county is aware of the concern and addresses it.
While Reus echoed O'Brien in saying that Friends of Open Space & Vineyards is also not against solar energy, she said that the group questions the need for utility-scale solar in the proposed area.
"We think a policy has to come first and the least environmentally disturbing placement should be looked at rather than piecemealing in projects that are going to have environmental impacts and disrupt the agricultural, rural character of the area, the open space values and the habitat values," Reus said.
The third resident group that filed an appeal, Friends of Livermore, commissioned its own mapping study in October to find some alternative areas with solar energy potential. According to Rounds, the study was completed quickly and yielded mostly surface level results but identified significant potential in developed areas in East Alameda County where solar power could go.
He said that although a number of those locations may not be ideal to developers, the study served as an example that if further research is done, they could find that "solar energy needs can be fulfilled without having to cover prime agricultural land in Alameda County."
Marisa Mitchell, Intersect Power's project lead for the Aramis development, said that while she doesn't have a copy of the completed study by Friends of Livermore, she is aware of some of the properties identified in it, including one 300-acre location that is a fully permitted conservation easement property, which she said is essentially a "mitigation bank for protected species," making it unsuitable for solar.
She added that she views the finding as a testament to how challenging it is to find sites with minimal impacts like the proposed North Livermore location.
"Finding a perfect solar site like this in Northern California and in Alameda County is extremely difficult. There are very few areas that have low impacts like this site," she said.
Although its plans were approved, Intersect Power filed an appeal of its own related to two conditions of approval added to the resolution by the Board of Zoning Adjustments.
"The condition being appealed was added in response to a comment from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and it requires a one-mile buffer for eagle nests," the company wrote in its appeal. "This buffer is too large for an active agricultural area with existing noise disturbances from farm equipment and operations. The addition of noise associated with project construction does not warrant an avoidance buffer greater than a half-mile."
The second condition the developer appealed is the requirement for "increased setbacks and agricultural plantings."
According to Mitchell, the purpose of the planned vegetation around the project is to obscure the view of the solar arrays from public view. She said that they chose ornamental plants that are drought tolerant, evergreen and pollinator-enhancing.
However, the change from the zoning board calls for agricultural crops to be planted instead of the decorative landscaping, which she said, "doesn't allow us to fulfill our commitment that we made to the nonprofit organizations that we like to work with -- including Audubon California, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club -- that we would plant pollinator-enhancing, pollinator-friendly species."
In response to the appeals from the project's opponents, Mitchell said that Intersect Power is "not surprised" by them: "This is all a part of the democratic process, and we are happy to have so many people contributing to making this project better."
She added, however, that she feels confident that the project will move forward as the content of the opposing appeals does not present new arguments that haven't already been heard or addressed. "I feel that the planning staff and the Board of Zoning Adjustments made their findings and that if they're comfortable with those findings, the Board of Supervisors will concur with those findings," she said.
The appeals are tentatively set to be heard on Jan. 12, which makes opponents of the project optimistic.
"There will be a new supervisor for our district and I don't know exactly how that will affect things but (Supervisor-elect David Haubert) is on record in The Independent saying that he agreed with our position earlier that a comprehensive solar policy with detailed mapping of appropriate locations for solar should be done before any of these projects are considered," O'Brien said.
Haubert, outgoing mayor of Dublin, is scheduled to be sworn in to join the Board of Supervisors on Jan. 4, succeeding retiring Supervisor Scott Haggerty.
More information about the solar project can be found here.