Later, I heard from several Benicia environmental advocates who favor the project. The Planning Commission will have to weigh the pros and cons of this one carefully.
Check out the Planning Commission agenda for details on how to submit comments by email and how to participate in the live videoconference.
Here’s my friend Kathy Kerridge’s reasoning:
May 27, 2020
Re: Agenda item 11B, Lake Herman Road Solar Project
Dear Planning Commissioners,
I am writing to voice my support for the Solar Project proposed for Lake Herman Road.
We are in the midst of a climate crises. Scientists have said we need to act within the next 10 years to substantially reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. We are starting to see the world change around us, with increasing fires, droughts, stronger storms, floods, sea level rise and even plagues of locus. The ocean is increasingly becoming acidic. The coral reefs are dying. We cannot wait to act. We must act now to reduce emissions. This project can be part of the solution.
This project will sell power to Marin Clean Energy, our local power provider. A company that is run by the communities it serves. It will add to their renewal energy portfolio. It will provide local jobs. It is located in open space that is near a nice recreation area, Lake Herman, but I don’t believe it will be visible from the trail around the lake. Even if it is the benefits out weight the costs. The Lake Herman area is within a stone’s throw of a major oil refinery. We are not talking here about a pristine wildness area being developed, but are putting a solar facility pretty much across the street from an industrial park. If not here where? Of course the ideal location for solar would be on rooftops, over parking lots and over roads, but I don’t believe this is an either or decision. Ultimately we will need solar in both places.
If local projects like this do not get approval we will never make progress in fighting the climate catastrophe that we are facing. Delay is also not an option. We need to start acting now on the transformation of our society. No project is ever perfect. But we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good. This is power that will be used by our local power company. If we say no to projects like this I don’t know how we will ever make progress in reducing our emissions. Please approve this project for the sake of our future.
By Roger Straw, May 27, 2020, posting a letter by Don Dean
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
Benicia’s rejection of oil trains could reverberate across country
By Kurtis Alexander, 9/21/16 5:11pm
Benicia’s rejection of plans to bring trains filled with crude oil to Valero Corp.’s big refinery in the city was hailed Wednesday by critics of the country’s expanding oil-by-rail operations, who hope the flexing of local power will reverberate across the Bay Area and the nation.
Of particular interest to environmentalists and local opponents, who for years have argued that Valero’s proposal brought the danger of a catastrophic spill or fire, was a last-minute decision by U.S. officials that Benicia’s elected leaders — not the federal government — had the final say in the matter.
Word of that decision arrived just before the City Council, in a unanimous vote late Tuesday, dismissed Valero’s proposal for a new $70 million rail depot along the Carquinez Strait off Interstate 680. Valero had said the project would not only be safe but bring local jobs, tax revenue and lower gas prices.
“We’re pleased with the decision and the implications it will have across the country,” said Jackie Prange, a staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of several groups opposed to the project. “This issue is live in a number of sites across the country. This is definitely a decision that I think cities in other states will be looking to.”
As oil production has boomed across North America, so has the need to send crude via railroad. The uptick in tanker trains, though, has been accompanied by a spate of accidents in recent years, including a 2013 derailment in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic in which a 72-car train exploded and killed more than 40 people.
The authority of communities to limit oil trains has been clouded by the assertion of some in the petroleum industry that local officials don’t have jurisdiction to get in the way. Companies like Valero have contended that railroad issues are matter of interstate commerce — and hence are the purview of the federal government.
Shortly before Tuesday’s meeting, however, Benicia officials received a letter from the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, which wrote that Valero, based in Texas, was not a railroad company and that the proposed rail terminal fell under city jurisdiction.
“It’s what I was waiting for to help me make my vote more defensible,” said Councilman Alan Schwartzman at the meeting.
Earlier this year, Valero had asked the Surface Transportation Board for “preemption” protection for the project after Benicia’s Planning Commission rejected the proposal. The plan proceeded to the City Council upon appeal.
The plan called for oil deliveries from up to two 50-car trains a day, many passing through several Northern California communities en route from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota. Those trains would carry as many as 70,000 barrels of oil.
The company billed the project as a way to keep gasoline prices low in the absence of a major oil pipeline serving the West Coast. Crude is currently brought to the Bay Area mostly by boat or through smaller pipelines.
On Wednesday, Valero officials expressed frustration at the city’s decision.
“After nearly four years of review and analysis by independent experts and the city, we are disappointed that the City Council members have chosen to reject the crude by rail project,” spokeswoman Lillian Riojas wrote in an email. “At this time we are considering our options moving forward.”
The vote directly hit the city’s pocketbook. Nearly 25 percent of Benicia’s budget comes from taxes on the oil giant, and the city coffers stood to grow with more crude. The refinery employs about 500 people, according to city records.
But the city’s environmental study showed that oil trains presented a hazard. The document concluded that an accident was possible on the nearly 70 miles of track between Roseville (Placer County) and the refinery, though the likelihood was only one event every 111 years.
The document also suggested that much of the crude coming to the Bay Area from North Dakota, as well as from tar sands in Canada, was more flammable than most.
Several cities in the Bay Area and Sacramento area joined environmental groups in calling for rejection of the project.
“The council’s vote is a tremendous victory for the community and communities all throughout California,” said Ethan Buckner of the opposition group Stand, who was among more than 100 people who turned out for the council’s verdict. “At a time when oil consumption in California is going down, projects like this are unnecessary.”
At least two other plans are in the works for oil delivery by rail elsewhere in the region — in Richmond and Pittsburg. A handful of other proposals have been put forth in other parts of California, including the expansion of a rail spur at a Phillips 66 refinery in San Luis Obispo County, which is scheduled to be heard by the county planning board Thursday.
Prange, with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said this week’s finding by the Surface Transportation Board gives cities the confidence to reject the proposed oil trains, if they wish to do so.
“It reaffirms the power of local government to protect their citizens from these dangerous projects,” she said.
U.S. oil deliveries by rail have grown quickly, from 20 million barrels in 2010 to 323 million in 2015, according to government estimates. In response, federal transportation officials have worked to improve the safety of oil-carrying cars with new regulations.
But over the past year, rail deliveries nationwide have slowed, in part because of the stricter rules as well as local opposition, falling crude prices and new pipelines.
Critics have complained that the tightened rules have fallen short, pointing to incidents like a June train derailment in Mosier, Ore., which spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude into the Columbia River. Leaders in Oregon are discussing a statewide ban on crude trains.
Kurtis Alexander is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.
• Valero wants to bring trains carrying crude through Sacramento region to Benicia refinery
• Even without a catastrophe, oil trains pose a serious threat to public health and safety
• With clean energy and efficiency, California doesn’t need to take the risk
If approved, proposed new oil train terminals at refineries in California would turn our railways into crude oil superhighways. Mile-long oil trains would haul millions of gallons of toxic, explosive crude through downtown Sacramento and dozens of other California cities and towns. An estimated 5 million Californians live in the one-mile evacuation zone along oil train routes.
In Benicia, city officials are close to a final decision on the proposed Valero oil train terminal. It’s essential that City Council members, who hold a hearing on Tuesday, understand why oil trains are too dangerous for our communities. There is no sure way to protect public health while transporting crude oil by rail.
Valero wants to bring two 50-car trains carrying about 3 million gallons of oil to its Benicia refinery every day. The environmental review of the proposal cites the “potentially significant” hazard of a spill and fire.
In 2013, the oil train explosion in Lac Megantic, Quebec, demonstrated the danger. It killed 47 people, destroyed dozens of buildings and poisoned a local lake. Three years later, residents still live with fear and anxiety, and scientists have recorded an “unprecedented” spike of fish deformities.
But it doesn’t take a catastrophe for oil trains to pose a serious threat to public health and safety. They disrupt traffic, delay emergency response and bring more poisoned air and increased disease. That’s why six counties and 22 cities around Sacramento have already said no to these trains. But the safety of all Californians living in the blast zone lies in the hands of Benicia city officials who will decide whether to approve Valero’s permit.
On Feb. 11, after days of testimony from experts and community members, the city Planning Commission voted unanimously to deny the permit. Valero has appealed to the Benicia City Council, which will make the final decision.
Something similar is happening in San Luis Obispo County, where the county staff and the California Coastal Commission recommended that the county reject the Phillips 66 oil train terminal proposal. The county Planning Commission must decide soon, but the final decision will rest with county supervisors.
The good news is that we don’t have to live with these oil risks barreling through town. We can make our communities safer by transitioning to clean energy. A recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists revealed that improvements in fuel efficiency and energy technology could help us cut oil consumption in half by 2030.
There’s no place for extreme tar sands or Bakken crude in California’s emerging clean energy economy – and there’s no place in our communities for dangerous, unnecessary crude oil trains.