REGIONAL — The East County Board of Zoning Adjustments (BZA) this week agreed on a 60-day continuance of the smaller of two solar projects proposed for North Livermore.
At its Oct. 22 meeting, the BZA unanimously approved the pause before taking action on a conditional use permit or certifying the Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR) for the Sunwalker project — a 59-acre, 6 megawatt solar electric facility proposed for the intersection of North Livermore Avenue and May School Road in unincorporated Livermore. A Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) for this project was circulated from March 6 through April 21 this year.
“I kind of want to get my hands around this a little bit,” BZA Chair Frank Imhof said after expressing the desire to review a solar site in person before making any decision. “And with that, we have some homework to do.”
Prior to the vote, the BZA listened to presentations from both Sunwalker applicant Kevin White and Steve Noack, principal with Placeworks, who presented the FEIR.
White stated that his team had listened to the community to establish two concerns and address them: well water depletion and aesthetics. He said Sunwalker will not use the existing well on-site for its landscaping or solar cleaning needs; the project will incorporate landscaping to reduce the view of the panels.
The board then listened to public comment both in favor and against the project. During the meeting that saw over 500 participants, the community — ranging from advocacy groups and individual residents to unions and environmentalists — spoke out both in favor of and in opposition to these controversial projects.
Speakers expressed concerns over the heat emanating from the solar panels, sheep depositing more parasites into the soil compared to that from cows, bird mortality, Measure D violations, loss of open space, negative environmental impacts, groundwater contamination, among others. Those in favor of the projects pointed out the renewable energy the panels would create, along with jobs.
Resident Van Reiny stressed the need for renewable energy in support, while Chris O’Brien, a resident and founder of Save North Livermore Valley, noted the project was in violation of Measure D — passed by voters in 2000 to protect rural land from urban sprawl.
“You’re talking about a sea of glass, and the only reason it’s not called a ‘structure’ is because (it doesn’t have) walls,” O’Brien said.
The Friends of Livermore (FOL) representative, Dick Schneider, shared that the FOL engaged a consultant to identify sites for solar energy facilities.
“The consultants looked mainly for solar potential, that is, topography and proximity to grid connections. In only a week, that firm came up with seven possible sites for SEFs in Alameda County,” Schneider said. “Because a number of locations could exist for large-scale solar energy facilities and because the county will initiate a least-conflict study this fall, Friends of Livermore urges the BZA to pause consideration of the two projects in the pipeline until the county least-conflict study is done. In this way, it may be possible to avoid the intense controversy we see now over the North Livermore Valley.”
Jason Lindsay, business agent for Iron Workers Local 378, spoke in favor of the solar construction. He noted that the jobs would be living wage with benefit packages and pointed out the project could help marginalized and underserved communities by providing this employment.
“This project is in our jurisdiction; a project of this size could employ 50 or more of our members,” said Lindsay.
Tamara Reus, President of the Friends of Open Space and Vineyards, raised her concerns over the impacts to the environment and what she deemed a lack of information.
“What we’re dealing with here is a project that is really industrial in nature and will fundamentally change the land use in the area — it’s not like a wind turbine,” Reus said, noting turbines involve minimal disruption of the land. “We are going to have a project that doesn’t realistically permit agriculture underneath … the EIR is not ready and it’s very limited, partly due to the fact that there is no solar policy. In fact, the county has already admitted there are other inquiries already being made on the basis of the two applications.”
Derek Eddy, BZA board member, expressed an appreciation for the community’s feedback.
“But what would it take timewise …. to put together a plan? What kind of time frame?” he asked, referring to the development of a solar policy.
Sonia Urzua, senior planner, responded to say the Alameda County Board of Supervisors had recently directed staff to continue working on a solar policy. She referred to the Board of Supervisors’ Planning and Transportation Commission Oct. 19 meeting, during which time, the supervisors did not solidify a specific timeline but noted the policy could take a number of months.
“We want to make sure we don’t over-promise,” Urzua explained regarding how long the policy will take.
Steve Beyer, the third BZA board member, touched on mitigation measures pertaining to native species, such as the tiger salamander and the red-legged frog.
“If the (resource) agencies determine there is a loss of habitat as a part of the overall survey and reporting work that is done prior to and during construction, they’re going to require (reporting the habitats) as part of the project,” Beyer said. “The project itself includes very detailed mitigation measures if (the species) are found on-site. In talking to the biologist, they have not seen the closest identification of the tiger salamander … but they’re confident in looking at the mitigation measure that they would address (if the species are found) and all of this has to be reported to the resource agencies.”
During the same meeting, which spanned nearly four hours, the BZA also took comments only on the DEIR for the Aramis Solar Energy Generation and Storage Project — another proposed North Livermore project across from the Sunwalker development. It would cover a mostly contiguous 533-acre site located at Manning Road and North Livermore Avenue. The utility-scale project would generate up to 100 megawatts. A notice of availability of the DEIR was circulated to local, state and federal agencies and interested parties on Sept. 18. Comments will be received through Nov. 2.
Public speaker Jean King spoke to ask for an extension of the review time for the DEIR, which she pointed out is a 500-page document.
“Solar is good if there is storage, which this has, but I think we need more information on the 5 acres of batteries,” King said. “Questions about the batteries, how they are produced, their safety and the environmental impacts of these batteries are of great concern to me.”
O’Brien spoke again regarding Aramis, criticizing the DEIR for concluding the environmental impacts would be “not significant.” O’Brien’s property joins the region proposed for Aramis; he stated nothing in the plan shows a buffer between his property and the Aramis development.
The concerns of those speaking during the Sunwalker public hearing were again echoed during the Aramis portion. Chuck McCallum, resident since 1994, said this project is a great opportunity for renewable energy.
“This area has been sitting here for a very long time,” he said. “And this opportunity to actually build something that can give four-hour storage and help our environment is key for the future.”
More labor union representatives spoke in regard to the importance of jobs, including Joe Cruz with Laborers Local.
“We wanted to express our strong support of the Aramis DEIR in support of the green energy and the jobs it would create,” said Cruz.
Marissa Mitchell of Intersect Power, the Aramis project applicant, also weighed in.
“We carefully selected this site because it has severely impaired soils and lack of habitat for protected species,” she said. “Moreover, the EIR shows that the project will not be visible with the installation of extensive landscaping to screen the facility from public view. CEQA is the toughest environmental standard in the country, and the project is fully compatible with the county’s General Plan, Zoning Ordinance, and Measure D, which is a voter initiative approved in 2000 ... Measure D was intended to protect community open space like parklands, not to force private property into serving as community open space.”