Victory for High Desert Residents?

The Planning Commission meeting of May 24, was a victory for those opposed to locating massive solar projects in rural residential areas, many local Newberry residents and residents of other high desert rural communities like Joshua Tree, Lucerne Valley, and Morongo in attendance with the overwhelming majority of voices expressing vehement objection to textual changes that had been proposed by Land Use Services (LUS) in the Renewable Energy Conservation Element (RECE), a document being incorporated into the County Development Code, that would allow massive utility scale solar projects currently planned to closely abut or infiltrate rural residential areas.

 Most opponents cited support for solar projects, but not those that would destroy the quality of life, property values, income, and more importantly the health, of residents close to those planned projects if the language of the RECE was modified to allow large scale solar projects to be constructed in and close by rural residential areas.

Also present were relatively few representatives of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers citing the benefits to union members, and developers touting economic benefits to local communities around their project sites. Most developers usually equated opposition to RECE revisions to antagonism toward renewable energy, an unsupportable argument in light of the frequently expressed support of solar energy from their opponents. Developers also maintained that there would be considerable economic benefits for the affected communities. Union members voiced support for the revision in need of the work, and not having to travel longer distances, positions as unsupportable as the developer argument since there are many areas outside residential areas that can provide the same opportunities.

There was ample criticism of the revision, a revision which obviously reflected solely developer and unions positions with no input from affected rural residents. Opponents to the revision cited health concerns from fugitive dust to residents downwind of the projects, loss of property values, loss of tourist revenue, environmental damage, loss of superb scenic views, and the current glut of renewable energy making such enormous projects a burden on the taxpayer who must support the financial incentives available to such projects. They also maintained that most economic benefits of the projects would be enjoyed, not by the local communities, but by outside contractors and unions.

Among the commissioners most of the opposition to the revision was from Commissioner Paul Smith, appointed by Supervisor Ramos, who frequently cited the probable danger to rural residents from aeolian dust as well as the rights of rural residents in maintaining their quality of life, and who made a formal motion to send the RECE to the County Supervisors without including that controversial revision. The other commissioners expressed varying levels of support for the revisions recommended by LUS, the LUS Planning Director Terri Rahhal frequently mentioning that the original policy contained language that was too restrictive for renewable energy projects.

Ultimately however, although Commissioner Allard refused to second the motion by Commissioner Smith because of the original provision against siting utility scale projects in rural living or RL areas, a second was eventually given by Commissioner Matthews with subsequent deliberation resulting in a decision to send the original RECE to the County Supervisors without the controversial portion of the revisions, and without any Commission recommendation, which amounted to a victory for opponents of the revision, the rural residents of the high desert.

Now the RECE may or may not be moved into the County Development Code by the County Supervisors. One would hope that the concerns of rural residents will be respected by the supervisors and will contain the original restrictive language which forbids massive renewable energy developments so close to populated rural areas.