REGIONAL — From the get-go, Alameda County planners were concerned that a proposal to build the county’s largest solar power utility development in North Livermore included impermissible conflicts with the county’s general plan. This is what can be learned from recently released emails.
County email correspondence and other documents obtained through a California Public Records Act request show that as recently as mid-August, county planners continued to voice concerns about the appropriateness of the 410-acre Aramis proposal, which if approved, would establish a controversial precedent.
“I absolutely disagree that this project — especially considering its size — is in conformance with the ECAP (East County Area Plan) policies or zoning ordinances, or is compatible with ag in general,” wrote Bruce Jensen, a senior planner, in an Aug. 13 email.
Jensen shared his assessment with County Planning Director Albert Lopez and other planners following his review of the Aramis Draft Environmental Impact Report that was being prepared for public release.
“Nothing in any document anticipates a land use of this magnitude across North Livermore or Mountain House, and in fact, must be read so loosely so as to ignore the spirit and intent of the policies,” Jensen continued. “Their analysis does not pass the laugh test to me.”
The Aramis developer, Intersect Power, contends its project squares with the General Plan and its only conflict with Measure D can be avoided through a feasible project alternative evaluated in the environmental impact report (EIR).
The draft EIR, prepared by Helix Environmental Planning for the county, was released this September. It concludes the project, as proposed, would conform with the county’s General Plan, zoning ordinance and Measure D policies, except for more than 20 acres of the northernmost section of the project that calls for solar arrays on an area designated for Resource Management.
The public comment period ended Nov. 2, and a final EIR is now in the works. It next goes to the East County Board of Zoning Adjustments (BZA) for a vote on certification and approval or denial of a conditional-use permit. The BZA is expected to return with its comments in the coming weeks.
To understand the friction, it helps to take a step back to the initial phases of the environmental review process.
While the majority of the 410-acre project site is designated Large Parcel Agriculture in the ECAP, the Aramis proposal also includes areas with Resource Management (RM) and Water Management (WM) land use designations in the ECAP. According to the EIR, about 21 acres of the project site are located on WM land and 22 acres are RM land.
In an April 9 email to Andrew Young, the county planner preparing the Notice of Preparation (NOP), Intersect Power principal Marisa Mitchell challenged a county determination concerning the WM and RM areas.
Mitchell contends in her email the project was designed expressly to avoid resource conflicts, including hydrology, water quality, biological resources and agriculture, and suggests the maps the county used were inaccurate. She appeared to back up her claim in part based on a 2018 email she received from a planner noting the county had more than one map delineating the land use boundaries and that they were not at the time all in agreement.
“We believe that the EIR analysis should be conducted prior to the Planning Department concluding that certain portions of the proposed project’s footprint are immediately off the table for development because of a very rough line drawn on a 20-year-old map,” she wrote.
Instead of sending the developer back to the drawing board, emails show the county planning department granted Mitchell’s request to allow Intersect an opportunity to make its case that despite the RM and WM designations, the project was protective of resources and worthy of consideration.
Alameda County Planning Director Albert Lopez attempted to put the boundary question to rest by providing a more refined map of land-use designations within the ECAP, emails show.
Even so, Mitchell, in an April 20 email, once again raised the prospect of a boundary line dispute, stating “the origin of the lines in question” and number of acres the project encroached into undevelopable land were “subject to interpretation.”
She asked for the NOP not to include a map showing the RM and WM lands in relation to the solar development. “I know either way we will have an opportunity to demonstrate compatibility; however, first impressions are powerful,” she wrote.
Lopez again addressed Mitchell’s boundary claim in a reply email.
“Hello there, the boundaries are not subject to interpretation, they are our official general plan map,” Lopez wrote. “Your mission will be to demonstrate that despite the boundaries being where they are, your project in all other ways complies with the policies of the general plan. The CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) document is the county’s document ultimately, and the first impression we want to give our general public is that we are respecting the boundaries as drawn. I hope we can get on the same page with this and get the NOP out.”
The version of the NOP posted to the planning department’s website does not include a map with different land use designations within the project site. A version on the state’s CEQA clearinghouse website does.
After the exchange with Lopez, the emails show Mitchell requested from planners’ additional wordsmithing.
“If you state ‘The Project is therefore restricted from including solar panel development on portions of the Project site with RM and WM land use designations,’ it will be very difficult for the Department to walk this back if you subsequently find that our arguments in favor of development in these designations have merit,” she wrote in an April 22 email. “We are extremely creative, and I don’t doubt we can develop novel project modifications that will be compatible with sensitive lands. Why not soften the language to give yourselves options?”
However, emails to one another show planners continued to find fault with the proposal.
“This is a can of worms, for the WM and RM designations, for the decisionmakers’ perceptions of environmental protection, and for the legal status of Measure D, that I am not sure we want to open,” Jensen wrote. “The developer could argue that the mitigation measures qualify as minor technical changes that are legally allowable under Measure D if made by the Board (of Supervisors), but that expands the can of worms yet again.”
In a later email in August, Jensen said there would be no way to “hide this enormous project or protect the scenic quality of the area. It is a big, in-your-face project, and denial of that quality is disingenuous.”
He concluded, "We need to let the politicians themselves say that a solar plant like this is acceptable or not and let them take responsibility if they want it.”