Several Benicia environmental advocates are sending last-minute emails urging public attention on a proposal coming to Benicia’s Planning Commission tomorrow, Thursday, March 28, 7pm.
I received a copy of the following excellent public comment submitted to the Planning Commission by Don Dean, Benicia resident and former Planning Commission chair. Don lays out good reasons for opposing the project.
Check out the Planning Commission agenda for details on how to submit comments by email and how to participate in the live videoconference.
Letter by Don Dean…
May 26, 2020
Chair Birdseye and Benicia Planning Commission Community Development Department 250 East L Street Benicia, CA 94510
RE: Renewable Properties Solar Project on Lake Herman Road.
Dear Chair Birdseye and Commissioners:
I am writing to urge the Planning Commission not to approve the solar project proposed by Renewable Properties on Lake Herman Road. I believe there are a number of issues that have not been adequately addressed, and the project would be detrimental to Benicia’s Open Space reserve and contrary to the letter and spirit of the General Plan. Below, I have outlined a number of shortcomings of the project analysis.
Inconsistent with the General Plan
The Benicia General Plan designates the project site as General Open Space (OS). Designated open space is considered important enough that state planning law requires cities to plan for the preservation of natural resources, the managed production of resources, outdoor recreation, and public health and safety. Allowable uses in the Benicia OS designation “include agriculture, horticulture, passive recreation, and mineral extraction in State-designated mineral resource areas only” (GP, page 31).
The intent of the OS designation in the vicinity of Lake Herman Road seems clear as illustrated by the following goals and policies in the General Plan:
- Policy 2.1.5–An Urban Growth Boundary is established…in order to separate the City’s urban area from its surrounding greenbelt of open lands and to maintain lands near Lake Herman and north of Lake Herman Road in permanent agriculture/open space use. No urban development is allowed beyond the Urban Growth Boundary.
- Goal 2.2–Maintain lands near Lake Herman Road and north of Lake Herman Road in permanent agriculture/open space use.
- Program 2.2B–Acquire property, development rights, or easement to preserve open space. § Policy 3.18.1–Preserve rangeland north of Lake Herman Road.
- General Plan, page 33–In addition, the UGB will help preserve key land forms which separate Benicia physically and visually from adjacent communities; protect and maintain the rural quality of Lake Herman Road and areas adjacent to it…
As an industrial-scale project on OS-designated land north of Lake Herman Road and outside the Urban Growth Boundary, the proposed project would not be consistent with any of these policies.
The staff report stated that the proposed solar project is not an “urban” project because it does not require the extension of city services (that is, sewer, water, police, etc.) beyond the Urban Growth Boundary. However, it seems clear looking at the renderings presented in the staff report (Figure 3, Site Plan; Figure 5, Aerial View; and Figure 12, Approaching Project from East) that this is an industrial-scale project. Figures 1 and 2 (attached) are photos of a similar Marin Clean Energy (MCE) solar facility in the industrial area of Richmond and illustrate the closepacked nature of solar panels. The proposed project will blanket 35 acres of the landscape and would be incompatible with and preclude any of the allowed uses in the OS designation (i.e., agriculture, horticulture, passive recreation, and mineral extraction). Due to the size, scale, and intensity of use, for all practical purposes, this is an urban project. The fact that it does not fit a narrow planning definition of urban development does not mean that it is suitable for Open Space-designated land.
As noted in the staff report (page 25), the zoning code is silent on the classification of renewable energy uses, including solar facilities, wind turbines, and other similar uses. State law requires that the zoning code be consistent with the City’s General Plan. The applicant is proposing that the zoning code be amended to allow large-scale solar facilities. It is up to the independent judgment of the Planning Commission to determine whether that change to the code should be made. I submit that the proposed code changes are not consistent with the intent of the OS designation and undermine the stated purposes of the OS designation; therefore, the zoning amendment should be denied.
Solar Inventory Overly Conservative
The proposed zoning change will affect not just this one site on Lake Herman Road, but 159 parcels (2,170 acres) spread throughout the city. Attachment 4 of the staff report presents a Solar Inventory for other open space parcels considered suitable for solar development. The Solar Inventory concludes that only eight parcels are available for possible solar development, with the implication that any potential impacts from other new solar facilities would be minimal. This conclusion seems based on a number of overly narrow assumptions. For instance, the analysis dismissed any non-contiguous open space parcels less than 5 acres in size as not viable. However, the city solar facility at Rose Drive and East 2nd Street is only 1.5 acres in size. The analysis also removes any parcels that are more than 100 feet from an electrical distribution line. This seems overly restrictive, as 100 feet is less than the length of many residential lots in Benicia. It’s hard to understand why an electrical connection could not be extended further than 100 feet for a major solar project. If the Solar Inventory underestimates the possible number and locations of new installations, it could lead to an inaccurate assessment of possible impacts due to the zoning change.
The staff report (page 7) discounts the possible impacts of additional solar sites in the city and states, “there is no causal connection between the creation of a new land use classification in the OS District and induced development of utility solar projects within the city of Benicia.” This statement is unfounded, for though you can’t prove the new use classification would induce additional solar projects in Benicia, it’s only reasonable to assume that they would occur, as the opportunity has not existed until now. The staff report also acknowledges that there will be effects from the potential development (though isolated), but makes no attempt to identify those effects and where the impacts might occur, in spite of the fact the new classification will affect all the 159 OS-designated properties throughout the community. If there really are so few other viable parcels for solar, is the Commission essentially making this city-wide change for the benefit of one applicant?
The Visual Assessment (Staff Attachment 5) illustrates the future views of the project along Lake Herman Road. The Assessment states that “the project will not substantially contrast with the dominant form of the existing landscape.” I would argue that the Visual Assessment illustrates exactly the opposite point–that the views from Lake Herman Road will be permanently altered from a natural agricultural landscape to an artificial, man-made one. (See Figures 11 through 14 of the Visual Assessment.)
The question asked in the Aesthetics section of the Initial Study/Mitigated Negative Declaration is “Would the project—In non-urbanized areas, substantially degrade the existing visual character or quality of public views of the site and its surroundings?” The visual analysis responds by stating that “While the visual character of the project site would change from an undeveloped hillside to a solar array, there would be no adverse effect on a recognized scenic vista or degradation of public views.” By focusing on the recognized scenic vistas, the analysis misses the larger point. There are multiple public views of the project site along Lake Herman Road. It seem clear from the applicant’s Visual Assessment renderings, that the character and visual quality of the existing open space would be adversely affected by the project.
Has the City conducted an independent review of the Solar Inventory, the Visual Assessment and other relevant material presented by the applicant? CEQA requires that the decisionmaking body of the lead agency shall adopt the proposed negative declaration or mitigated negative declaration only if it reflects the lead agency’s independent judgment and analysis (CEQA Guidelines 15074(b)). I would encourage you to make sure you are confident in the accuracy and objectivity of the information presented to you before taking action.
Open space provides a real amenity to Benicia’s residents, both physical and psychological. Approval of this project will erode the City’s inventory of open space without providing any corresponding benefit to the city. The electrical supply is inherently fungible; there is no reason to believe that the electricity produced here will be used here. It will enter the larger grid for use where demand is greatest. There are other locations in Benicia where a solar project could be placed. There are acres of paved surfaces in the industrial park and elsewhere that could be covered with panels. In approving this project the Commission will be setting a precedent that development of designated open space is acceptable.
One of the conundrums of planning is sometimes you have a good project in the wrong place. This is one of those times. It seems unnecessary to sacrifice a community amenity for private benefit. I respectfully request that the Planning Commission deny the proposed zoning change and use permit on the basis that it is not consistent with the General Plan.
Resident and former Planning Commission Chair
257 West I Street
Attachment: Figures 1 and 2: Photos of MCE Solar Facility in Richmond