For the most part, utility developers and local consultants loved the changes county planners made to the Conservation and Open Space Element (COSE) of the county’s general plan. On the other hand, environmental wonks and local activists bashed the same changes as a sign that county planners are kowtowing to big-energy developers.
Some supervisors took offense to the latter.
“I do take exception to the notion that we are catering this policy to the needs of certain corporate interests,” Supervisor Bruce Gibson said at the March 23 Board of Supervisors meeting.
By “corporate interests,” Gibson meant developers planning to build solar projects in the Carrizo Plain: First Solar and SunPower.
The energy element was one piece of nine planning policies, many of which haven’t been updated in 34 years. SLO County planning commissioners debated for nearly a year to draft language that sets the stage for what types of projects the county might accept.
Though commissioners were often at odds on specifics, they ultimately passed language that promotes distributed, local energy projects (think rooftop solar panels) and requires developers of large utility projects to avoid and mitigate environmental impacts.
From the start, staffers squirmed at the idea of being too restrictive by using such words as “mitigate” and “local.” In fact, after the commission hearings, staffers changed much of the language—removing “restrictive” words—before going to county supervisors for final approval.
“Well, it was clear when the hearings were happening that the commission was diverging from the staff’s recommended language,” Planning Commission Chair Anne Wyatt told New Times.
Regardless, Wyatt said she didn’t feel staff had overstepped their bounds in this case.
The changes proved agreeable to representatives from solar companies, the SLO Chamber of Commerce, and PG&E.
“If our goal is to encourage new energy … the effort needs to happen with as little impediment as possible,” said Ermina Karim, Chamber director of governmental affairs.
But others spoke of the changes as a governmental sellout.
“I’m seeing that some of you are being pushed up against a wall,” Jono Kinkade, a young activist out of Santa Margarita, told supervisors.
But Brian Parker of SunPower defended: “In no way are we looking for any special favors in this project.”
For the most part, supervisors concurred that the best approach in long-range planning language isn’t to prohibit one type of renewable-energy project over another.
“I think there is purposefully restrictive language from the planning-commission document,” Supervisor Adam Hill said.
He added that projects are best scrutinized under state environmental laws during the regular county review and approval process.
Supervisor Jim Patterson, often publicly targeted as beholden to solar developers, pushed most heavily to keep some of the original language and even asked to add words that would encourage distributed energy.
“I think it does behoove us to put more emphasis on distributed generation as much as we can,” he said.
Supervisors sent the language back for revision before they make a final decision on April 6. They largely accepted the staff-recommended changes, aside from retaining the words “local” and “mitigate,” or “fully mitigate,” in a few key places.