LIV - Sunwalker Hearing.JPG

The appeals hearing for Sunwalker, another controversial solar power project proposed for North Livermore, will take place April 22. If approved, the panels will cover the land seen here, off Manning Road. (Photo - Doug Jorgensen)

LIVERMORE — The contentious Aramis Solar Energy Generation and Storage project received unanimous county board approval during the appeals hearing last week.

Opposition groups are planning litigation.

The Alameda County Board of Supervisors held the 10-hour hearing on March 4, ultimately going forward with the controversial project presented by applicant Intersect Power. The solar development, proposed for agricultural land in North Livermore along Cayetano Creek, is set to cover 350 acres with solar panels and battery storage.

The hearing followed the Board of Zoning Adjustments’ (BZA) decision in November to recommend approval of the project. Three project opponents — Save North Livermore Valley (SNLV), Friends of Livermore, and Friends of Open Space and Vineyards — filed appeals. The fourth to appeal was applicant Intersect Power itself, taking issue with the BZA’s conditional-use permit (CUP) requirements. The supervisors denied all four appeals.

Rob Selna, an attorney representing SNLV, confirmed in an email to The Independent that a “coalition of farmers, ranchers, environmentalists, Alameda County voters and proponents of good government” are gearing up for litigation. The email followed SNLV steering committee leader Chris O’Brien’s public statement to the board during the hearing that the opposition intends to sue.

He said the board approved two solar projects in 2012, recalling that staff had stated at the time that the decision wouldn’t set a precedent.

“So the question of whether (solar projects on agricultural land) is a conforming use has not been determined on a countywide basis,” said O’Brien. “And that needs to be addressed before you vote on this issue.”

The fate of the project almost saw another turn earlier in the day when Supervisor Richard Valle initiated a motion to remand the project to the planning commission. At which point, Intersect Power Principal Marisa Mitchell said the action, which staff confirmed would result in a 90-day delay, would kill the project — a claim that both supervisors Wilma Chan and Keith Carson pushed.

“Ms. Mitchell, for you to state on the record that this would kill the project, I don’t know if that’s an adequate answer or not, because you probably know very well that no matter what happens, there will probably be litigation,” said Chan, who noted that she preferred the project. “In terms of how fast you’re able to proceed or not, you guys have expended a lot of time and energy for years on this, so I just want to make it very clear that, if you’re going to say that on the record, that that’s really 100% true.”

Mitchell said delaying the project by 90 days was putting her company into an unfair position. But Carson then further demanded a simple “yes” or “no” answer to the question of whether or not 90 days would, in fact, kill the project — to which Mitchell eventually answered yes.

Public Speaker Tyler O’Brien, whose family home is directly impacted by the project, urged the board to send it back to the planning commission.

“For Marisa Mitchell to say that this project is going to die if 90 days passes is a joke,” he said. “The project has been continued before; they know that litigation on CEQA is impending, and it will be delayed for another two years, at least. They knew this was a potential when they came into this. And they’ve said time and time again that if you take land and acreage, the project will fail. Well, that never happened … they lost the Stanley property, and yet somehow, magically, the project is still economically viable. These people backtrack on everything they say about this project. I think it’s the safe thing to send this to the planning commission to safeguard yourselves.”

Since its inception, the project has brought environmentalists head-to-head. Opponents state that Aramis will harm the existing site ecosystem and endanger federally protected species — all while covering agricultural lands with an industrial power plant. On the other hand, its supporters say the threat of climate change is an immediate threat in need of immediate action.

“The truth is, we do not have time to wait,” Speaker Emily Moore said. “Decarbonizing is not an arbitrary political move. It is essential for the survival of the human race. The UN’s 2018 intergovernmental panel on climate change reported that to avoid the most devastating consequences of climate change, we must drastically reduce emissions within the next decade. This is science. All of the top researchers know this.”

The project also brought up the conversation of equity, with public speakers noting that pollution and climate change disproportionately impact communities of color. Jahan Sagafi, a social justice lawyer living in Oakland, said that in a society with a shrinking middle class, this project would provide living wage jobs. Sam Cobbs, CEO of Tipping Point Community — a nonprofit focused on alleviating and preventing poverty — reported that the Aramis project’s community benefit program will give $250,000 to his organization.

“This is an invaluable contribution to our efforts to alleviate poverty and homelessness in the Bay Area, particularly because overhead costs like energy are very difficult for nonprofits to fundraise for,” Cobbs said. “When I was the executive director of First Place for Youth, which is located in downtown Oakland, I was amazed to see how much energy bills went down once solar was installed.”

April Atkins, a field representative of Carpenters Union Local 713 in Hayward, spoke in representation of 4,000 carpenters in Alameda County.

“Local job creation is an important benefit of procuring large-scale renewable energy,” she said. “We need to put people back to work and do our part locally to help achieve safe, renewable energy goals.”

However, Marlina Selva, representing the Ohlone Audubon Society, voiced opposition.

“We would first like to acknowledge the Ohlone people, who are the caretakers of these ancestral lands of theirs that we all walk on,” said Selva. She added that the impacts to listed species were underrepresented. “We strongly urge that this project not be permitted today by the board of supervisors.”

Other environmental groups that joined the stance in opposition to the project included the Alameda Creek Alliance, the Golden Gate Audubon Society and the Friends of Springtown Preserve.

Deborah Pearson, a retired consulting biologist who sits on the steering committee of the Friends of Springtown Preserve, called herself a longtime defender of “places that don’t look like much but happen to be very important habitats and very important ecologically.”

“That is probably the one thing that bothered me the most — in the biological assessments in the environmental impact report for this project, they seem to dismiss that this land has any value at all,” she said.

A Save Mount Diablo representative during the hearing said that the organization takes no position on the project. But another environmental group, the Sierra Club, stood in favor of Aramis.

“We applaud Alameda County for its unanimous approval of Aramis,” said Luis Amezcua, Sierra Club senior campaign representative. “As one of the largest solar projects in Northern California, Aramis is well-sited and will be critical to aiding the local economy and achieving California’s clean air and energy goals. We look forward to continuing our work with Alameda County and other stakeholders in building local clean energy that is consistent with our support for Measure D and will create good, union jobs.”

While some Tri-Valley residents spoke in favor of the project, several others from the area spoke in opposition. Sandy Amaota, a resident of Pleasanton, was concerned with well water contamination from chemicals associated with solar panels.

Priya Vassu of Livermore was against it even though she’s a supporter of solar power. She urged the board to look at this project from the perspective of 50 years from now, considering that open space is a dwindling resource. Further, she said she was offended by the characterization that the objection comes from a wealthy white perspective.

“People who are saying that have not been here in this community and have not walked on this land,” Vassu said.

District 1 Supervisor David Haubert stated that Measure D — passed by voters in 2000 to protect open land from urban sprawl — was problematic, prohibitive and unclear, with some people believing the project violated the measure and others saying it didn’t.

“This is a very tough decision for me personally, in that it’s the balance of open space, the environment and the need for clean energy,” he said before casting his vote.

Public speaker Glenn Kirby reported that he was chair of the Alameda County Planning Commission in 2000 when Measure D was passed. He said he was proud of the work the commission completed over the years, but noted that an area that could have been improved was “establishing under what conditions and where agricultural parcels could be converted to infrastructure.”

“Measure D allowed for supporting utilities within utility corridors. We never defined ‘utility corridor’ or how the corridor would support agricultural uses, and it remains undefined to this day,” Kirby said. “And I think the reason you are struggling with this now … is the result of a lack of having a policy. In response to the question of why there’s not a policy for utility installations, your staff has said that the requirements recommended for this project would be applied to future projects.

“This is not a sound method for establishing policy, and I think it’s unreasonable that, because of a lack of policy, you’re forcing this applicant to be the test case for all of the possible scenarios that might arise in the future if you had a policy in place. For instance, the proposal for sheep grazing, chickens and beekeeping are, in my view, rather token uses, which should not be used as policy for future projects.”

In October last year, while still campaigning, Haubert agreed to a statement supporting the creation of such a county solar policy, alongside SNLV and former Fremont Councilmember Vinnie Bacon — who was also his supervisorial District 1 opponent.

Their statement read, "We call on Alameda County Board of Supervisors to place a moratorium on the review of new solar power plants on agricultural land until the county completes a comprehensive study and mapping project on the appropriate siting, scale and operation of solar power plants, if any, on agricultural land, and incorporates this work in a solar ordinance and General Plan Amendment. The East County Board of Zoning Adjustments for Alameda County should likewise defer review of any individual proposed utility-scale solar facilities on agricultural land until the solar ordinance and General Plan Amendment are adopted."

With no solar policy currently in place, Selna called Haubert’s “yes” vote on the project after gaining the District 1 seat, a turn against his East County constituents.

“(Haubert) took the side of unions and a San Francisco-based private energy company that stands to make millions by blanketing a protected, scenic valley with solar panels. Other supervisors followed along,” said Selna. “There are East County locations suitable for industrial, ground-mounted solar, but North Livermore Valley is not one of them. California’s quick transition to clean energy requires smart planning so that impacts on protected land can be minimized. Alameda County has provided a blueprint for how not to approve solar projects. Hopefully, other jurisdictions can learn from Alameda County’s mistakes.”

After the meeting, Haubert told The Independent that while he had concerns in the past, he has since participated in hours of public meetings, read hundreds of emails and reports, and engaged with people who both support and oppose the project. On the topic of a solar policy, he said that halting the project when it’s so far along would be unfair, “especially when staff was so clear that this project would very likely be compatible with any policy they would bring back.”

“Furthermore, I remain committed to completing a solar (project), especially after so many years without one,” he said.

When asked if the arguments made in favor of Aramis would have an impact on his vote for the neighboring Sunwalker solar project, whose appeals hearing is set for April 22 according to county staff, Haubert said each project is different and unique.

“But, yes, some of the same arguments would have a similar impact,” he said.

Haubert went on to say that it’s important to keep an open mind and listen to all sides before making a final determination.

“I will always act in the best interests of the majority of my constituents,” he continued. “I would like everyone to know that their voices were heard, and I appreciated everyone who weighed in. I will always have an open door and an open mind for the people I serve.”