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Renewable energy fast tracking program briskly moves forward

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A county program that would fast track the permitting process for small-scale solar projects got the initial go ahead from the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors on March 10.

The Renewable Energy Streamlining Program (RESP) is designed to simplify the approval process for distributed generation solar energy projects by creating a set of strict requirements that, if met, will exempt a project from the intensive public approval process. The program would only require a ministerial review process, rather than more intensive discretionary review, a process that could make a project’s permitting dependent on the planning commission and possibly the Board of Supervisors.

The program would be funded by a California Energy Commission grant designed to help counties boost their renewable energy production to meet state standards. The RESP has been blazing through the approval process as planners aim to meet the deadline for 
the grant.

Earlier this year, the planning commission spent three meetings sorting through the program’s complex details. During that process, several revisions were made. Namely, the program will only apply for projects 40 acres or smaller, reduced from the original language that set a 160-acre limit. The program requires projects to be sited on previously disturbed soils—i.e. soils that have already been graded, developed on, or farmed—or limited rangelands, barring projects in areas with prime agricultural soils. The program will also require a biological study by one of the county’s approved biological consultants.

The RESP has drawn a mixed response from stakeholders, including those in the agricultural industry, environmentalists, and advocates for native and endangered species.

“I think this has been very successful,” said Joy Fitzhugh, legislative analyst for the SLO County Farm Bureau. “I think there are issues relating to certain sensitive resources, but I think those can be addressed.”

Throughout the process, some stakeholders have aired concerns that the program would nix public oversight and opportunity for input. Biological surveys and reports, they argue, are not always at first accurate and sufficient, and at times must be improved during the Draft Environmental Impact Report review process.

“Providing certainty for the applicant adds to uncertainty for the species,” said Eric Greening, a frequent public participant in the planning process.

The supervisors will make a final decision on March 24.

-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay

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