LOGO - Alameda County Seal

LIVERMORE — The East County Board of Zoning Adjustments (BZA) last week voted to move forward with the smaller of two controversial solar utility-scale projects set for North Livermore.

Aramis, the larger 410-acre project also set for North Livermore, already gained approval from the BZA on Nov. 24.

At its Dec. 10 meeting, the BZA — absent board member Scott Beyer — approved the 59-acre Sunwalker project’s conditional use permit (CUP) and certified the environmental impact report (EIR) with conditions. The project site sits at 4871 N. Livermore Ave., at the intersection of North Livermore Avenue and May School Road.

Board member Frank Imhof said the project should have a 100-foot buffer zone on three of the project’s sides and landscape berms with agriculture along the perimeter. He added that a bond should be in place, obligating the applicant to restore the land to its original form if the project were never completed. Board member Derek Eddy said the project should undergo review at two-year intervals for the first 10 years to ensure compliance. The two agreed the applicant would need to provide proof of potable water purchase.

“A decision like this, for me, just like last month, is very, very, very difficult and affects a lot of people, and people that are actually friends of mine … I hear everything that people say,” Eddy said, adding that the decision supports movement toward renewable energy.

Save North Livermore Valley (SNLV) — a grassroots group that formed to “safeguard the valley’s scenic beauty and open space from destruction by commercial power companies” — plans to file an appeal on the decision.

Chris O’Brien of SNLV wrote in a statement that it was disappointing to see the BZA move ahead without Beyer, who “previously questioned the propriety of constructing industrial solar facilities in North Livermore Valley.”

“What is most disappointing, however, is the failure of the two commissioners who approved the Sunwalker project to consider the numerous and sound objections made by residents of North Livermore Valley and the City of Livermore and representatives of local environmental organizations,” O’Brien continued. “Save North Livermore Valley is determined to preserve our agricultural land and open space for future generations. We will not allow in a matter of mere weeks the destruction of land that has for centuries been used for farming and ranching and today is restricted under Measure D and other laws for agricultural uses only.”

In recent weeks, SNLV — along with Friends of Livermore (FOL), Friends of Open Space and Vineyards (FOSV) and the Aramis applicant, who objected to the conditions set by the board — filed appeals on the larger 410-acre Aramis project, also in North Livermore. The hearing date for Aramis is now set for Jan. 12. In a letter addressed to Alameda County Planning Director Albert Lopez, requesting an extension on the Aramis hearing, FOL and FOSV indicated they too will consider filing appeals on the Sunwalker project.

The Dec. 10 Sunwalker decision followed public comment and a brief presentation from project applicant Kevin White, who addressed three concerns expressed by the community in previous meetings and communications. The three included the possibility of the panels creating a heat island effect, groundwater contamination and power not serving the local community.

“Although you know solar panels may trap incoming heat that reaches the space below the panels during the day and limit the radiation of that heat away from the ground at night, thus causing a slight local increase in temperature, it is most pronounced in the evenings and at night,” White said, touching on the heat island effect issue. “Those effects are highly localized and most pronounced when land below the panels is unvegetated.”

On water quality, White said the CDT within the photovoltaic modules is highly stable; even if the modules were to become broken or damaged, they would not mobilize from the glass. On energy exporting outside of California, he showed a map and noted that based on local consumption of power, it was most likely to stay in the region.

While some speakers thanked White for addressing concerns, the 22 public speakers — all of whom opposed moving forward with the project — pointed out other issues. Complaints ranged from incompliances with Measure D and the Williamson Act to the destruction of open space and the scenic corridor. Some chimed in on the impracticality of using the land for grazing sheep.

Public speaker Jackie Bowles lives in North Livermore and said she runs one of the largest flocks of sheep in Alameda County.

“I can tell you as a sheep producer that raising sheep on this land is not going to work,” Bowles said.

Patti Cole of the Friends of the Springtown Wetlands Preserve echoed the concern that the project was incompatible with Measure D. She was also one of several to note the county’s solar policy should be in place before moving forward with any of the projects.

“I’m concerned for the unique ecosystem of the North Livermore Valley,” Cole said. “The dry agriculture that’s been in place for generations here is congruent with the special environmental needs related to sustaining what is left of the rare alkali sink wetlands. In addition to the requisite North Livermore Valley soils, hydrology and climate, specific plants and animals play an ongoing, continuous dance to survive here.”

Imhof asked for a confirmation from staff that the project is allowable under Measure D. Staff read aloud the report, which states the project parcel is outside of the Urban Growth Boundary established by Measure D but falls under the large parcel agriculture land-use designation. The planning department states that it does not consider ground-mounted solar installations to be structures.

The Aramis appeal hearing is expected to take place Jan. 12, unless an extension is taken into consideration.

For a schedule of county meetings, visit http://www.acgov.org/participate.htm.