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The Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted to continue the appeals hearing for the Sunwalker Energy solar project to June 3. The land seen here near the project site (4871 N. Livermore Ave.) could possibly become home to 59 acres of photovoltaic panels. (Photo - Doug Jorgensen)

LIVERMORE — The Alameda County Board of Supervisors today voted to continue the Sunwalker Energy solar facility project appeals hearing to its June 3 meeting.

Supervisors David Haubert, Richard Valle and Wilman Chan voted 3-0 to revisit consideration of the four appeals, along with certification of the project’s final environmental impact report (EIR) and approval of the conditional-use permit. Supervisors Keith Carson and Nate Miley were excused; the clerk of the board later stated there was no known reason for their absences.

The project would generate about 6 megawatts of photovoltaic power and cover 59 acres of a 71-acre parcel located at 4871 N. Livermore Ave. The East County Board of Zoning Adjustments’ (EBZA) decision to certify the final EIR in December 2020 saw four appeals from Save North Livermore Valley, Friends of Livermore, Friends of Open Space and Vineyards, and the Bowles family.

The groups’ appeal points charged that the project represented an improper use of the agricultural land and would decrease aesthetics. They further stated that the board needed to explore alternatives for solar construction and establish a county solar policy. The groups challenged the public need for the project.

The appellants also reported the project to be overall inconsistent with the Williamson Act. The Williamson Act enables local governments to enter into contracts with private landowners for the purpose of restricting specific parcels of land to agricultural or related open space use.

After hearing the appellants’ objections to the project and the public comments, the supervisors expressed their own concerns around the lack of a county solar policy, the project’s agricultural management plan and the Williamson Act. At present, the applicant’s agreement with the landowner is that the Williamson Act must continue to apply to the property.

“I would prefer to have the policy in place before we considered anything else,” Chan said.

The board recently approved the even larger Aramis Solar Energy Generation and Storage project on March 4, 2021. That project will now cover over 300 acres in North Livermore along Cayetano Creek with solar panels and 5 acres with battery and facility storage.

Chan asked staff how long it would take to develop a solar policy, and County Planning Direct Albert Lopez reported the time period to be 9 months to a year. Chan then turned to the Sunwalker applicant Kevin White.

“We’re in a really difficult position here, because we’re approving things on a one-by-one basis without a clear policy — that puts us in a terrible position,” Chan said, asking if a delay would kill the project.

White pointed out that the project began in 2016 and already went through the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process.

“It’s been a long time coming, and our application was submitted prior to the Aramis project, but somehow, someway, the Aramis project was approved by your board,” he said. “At the end of 2022, the solar investment tax credit from the federal government will drop from its current rate — 26%, I believe — to a lower rate. It does put the project in jeopardy.”

Haubert said that the Aramis project had a more robust agricultural management plan, with plans for animal grazing and beekeeping.

Before the vote, four individuals spoke in favor of the project, noting the importance of supporting green energy generation and creating local union jobs. The other 12 of the 16 public speakers weighed in to oppose the project, citing the impact to the site’s habitat of federally listed species, the county’s lack of a solar policy plan and groundwater contamination as some of the concerns, among others.

Speaker and Livermore resident Jean King said the EIR was not adequate.

“I’m not a lawyer, but if new information has been sent to you about water contamination and environmental concerns, have you violated CEQA?” King said. “This project should not be before the supervisors without a solar policy. You do not have a solar policy that has gone through the proper public process … a staff draft policy is not sufficient.”