By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Plans for a public power agency and the renewable energy projects that could sprout with it appear to have scrambled politics in Sonoma County.
Shifting alliances, particularly among agricultural and environmental advocates, have emerged over a key land-use question tangential to the power proposal: where to allow energy projects on the county’s croplands, ranches and forested properties?
The issue has divided agricultural interests, including a group of grape growers and the county’s largest farming organization, and revealed potential wrinkles in how the power plan has been rolled out to the wine industry.
It has also presented environmental groups with a complicated choice between two priorities that can be at odds — green energy development and landscape protection.
The local split mirrors larger rifts elsewhere in the state and country within groups of farmers and environmentalists over renewable energy projects.
Both sides voice confidence they can find a good balance for Sonoma County. But an initial public clash this week provided a glimpse of the fault lines and high stakes involved.
Eric Koenigshofer, the former Sonoma County supervisor who weighed in this week in favor of strong county regulation of energy projects on rural lands, called it the “nearly inevitable moment when two environmental purposes can butt heads.”
“The implications for the outlying areas of our county, our working landscapes, are very significant and potentially very negative,” Koenigshofer said.
On the other side, favoring a lighter regulatory touch, was Supervisor Efren Carrillo, a close ally of Koenigshofer’s and ardent supporter of the county power plan.
He called a set of county rules that would ban commercial energy projects on some cropland, including vineyard property, a “knee-jerk” reaction.
“You can’t have your cake and eat it too,” he said, lobbying for greater leeway to expand renewable energy generation.
The shakeup surfaced Tuesday at a Board of Supervisors hearing on proposed zoning changes intended to open more land in the county to renewable energy projects.
Currently, those changes would affect just one project, a 23-acre solar panel installation proposed for a hay field on the southeastern outskirts of Petaluma. The project, prohibited under current zoning, would be allowed under the rule changes.
It was not discussed in Tuesday’s hearing but could be a key test of how energy projects are judged on rural lands.
The supervisors’ meeting focused more on the county’s highest-value cropland, including vineyard properties, where commercial energy projects are not allowed and would remain banned under the rule changes.
A representative for grape growers balked at the blanket prohibition for cropland, including 16,000 acres of non-prime, largely hillside or riverside property.
“Ag is ag,” said Bob Anderson, executive director of the United Winegrowers for Sonoma County. He called the regulation “a misuse of the power of government.”
The ban would not affect projects on rooftops or over parking areas, which would be unlimited under the new rules.
Projects on a wide swath of pasture land would be permitted where they aren’t now, and larger projects on rural ranches and forested properties would be allowed with higher limits.
But without any changes to the cropland ban, Anderson said, he would urge his members — 250 growers and wineries — to pull their support for the county power plan. “I’ll call my guys and tell them to opt out,” he said.
The comments sent ripples through the board room and beyond this week.
Grape growers and winemakers have become a significant voice in the coalition of business and environmental interests behind the county power venture, which intends to begin serving homes and businesses Jan. 1 and displace Pacific Gas and Electric Co. as the area’s dominant power supplier.
The wine industry sees the effort as a way to burnish a green image and boost its bottom line with projects that can cover its costs and produce excess energy to be sold back to the electrical grid.
But Anderson’s stance puts his group at odds with the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, an umbrella organization that is concerned about conversion of farmland for energy development.
The group backed the blanket prohibition for commercial projects on cropland and lobbied for lower size limits on projects slated for pasture land.
“We want a program that embraces the concept (of renewable energy) but that is also protecting our farmlands and natural resources,” said Lex McCorvey, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau.
Other grape growers said they were not aware of any pending projects that would be affected by the new cropland rules. Productive vineyard isn’t usually converted because it is a better investment in grapes. And undeveloped land hasn’t been targeted because projects on buildings and parking lots have sufficed, growers said.
“I just don’t see that kind of pressure,” said Doug McIlroy, director of winegrowing for Rodney Strong. “We haven’t even filled up our rooftops at our winery facility and that’s where a lot of our power need is.”
Still, the unusual split between farming interests could interrupt what has been a fairly unified drumbeat in leading political circles for the power plan. It calls for a wide network of green energy projects — mostly solar installations for the time being — that could shrink the local carbon footprint.
As yet, no single plan exists for how the county would guide renewable energy development. Nearly all those involved in the issue say projects in urban areas — solar panels on roofs and over parking areas — are the first place the county should turn to encourage generation.
“We shouldn’t be carpeting hillsides with solar panels,” said Woody Hastings, renewable energy manager for the Climate Protection Campaign, the main advocacy group behind the public power plan.
But different visions for how rural lands could figure in green power production could also drive a wedge between environmental camps.
Conservationists say loosely governed development would ruin decades of work to protect farmland, greenbelts around cities and open space that serves as the visual backdrop for the area.
“Watch out,” Bill Kortum, a former county supervisor and veteran environmental activist, told the current board Tuesday. “The landscape of this county is very valuable to all of us … What you’re dealing with today is a very serious challenge to that landscape.”
Power plan proponents, including climate activists, said they didn’t disagree. Hastings said he was not worried about a breakdown in the constituency supporting the power plan. “We’re not at that point,” he said.
But the largest local environmental group, Sonoma County Conservation Action, is in a wait-and-see mode on the power plan. Along with the Farm Bureau — normally an adversary — the conservation group is worried about conversion of working and wild landscapes for energy development.
“It feels good that we’re on the same page on this,” said Dennis Rosatti, executive director of Conservation Action. “We have to be really sensitive to what we’ve been building on for the last 25 years in this county in terms of land protection.”
So far, outside of the Geysers geothermal field in northeast Sonoma County, no renewable projects proposed locally come close to the large solar installations taking over hundreds of acres of farmland in the state’s Central Valley, or the even larger industrial-scale projects covering thousands of acres in the Mojave Desert. The largest project currently on the drawing board — a 20-megawatt solar installation at Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport — would cover about 50 acres.
The county’s valley-bottom vineyard lands are mostly shielded from commercial projects. Proposed caps would limit the size of systems on non-prime farmland to 30 percent of the parcel with a maximum of 50 acres.
Farm Bureau officials largely backed those limits while voicing their preference for lower caps.
“Whatever policy that is developed needs to be thoughtful and respectful of the amount of ag land that we have here and how we maintain that for the future,” said McCorvey, the Farm Bureau director.
Finding that balance was difficult this week for the Board of Supervisors. They endorsed some measures but diverged sharply on others, foreshadowing the case-by-case fights that could arise over energy projects in the unincorporated area.
While taking no formal action, a short-handed board without Shirlee Zane sided three to one — with Mike McGuire, Susan Gorin and David Rabbitt in the majority and Carrillo in the minority — in favor of a ban on commercial projects on 70,000 acres of cropland, including vineyard and orchard properties. That includes state-designated prime, unique and important acreage, farmland set aside through the tax-shelter Williamson Act program, and the 16,000 acres of hill- and riverside property disputed by Anderson, the winegrower representative.
The same ban was recommended by the county Planning Commission on a 3-2 vote after five hearings on the issue this year and last.
Rabbitt voiced concern that much of the farmland being opened to commercial projects would be in 180,000 acres of pasture, mostly in his dairy-heavy, south-county district.
That includes the solar installation proposed on a 130-acre hay field off Frates Road and Adobe Road outside of Petaluma.
The 4-megawatt project — enough to power about 750 homes — calls for 6,340 panels on 22.6 acres across from a large PG&E substation and underneath high-voltage transmission lines.
“If we’re talking about renewables, they have to go somewhere,” said Dave Hood, chief executive officer of Coldwell Solar, a Placer County-based firm that is purchasing the land and putting forward the project. The remainder of the property could be planted in grapes, Hood said.
The City of Petaluma and a local environmental group have weighed in with their concerns about visual impacts and conversion of farmland.
“To start chopping that up for an industrial use is bad policy,” said David Keller, of the Petaluma River Council.
Hood said the 20-year installation would involve no grading or concrete foundation, meaning the land could easily be returned to agriculture.
The county Agricultural Commissioner’s Office has not objected to the project, which is not on prime farmland.
But non-prime ag land is valuable and shouldn’t be sacrificed, Rabbitt said Tuesday. “We need to make sure we preserve that.”
McGuire and Gorin supported tighter regulation for projects on the biggest swath of the county — 395,000 acres of ranches and forest properties zoned as rural resource lands. Commercial energy projects already are allowed on that acreage though none exist outside of The Geysers. Going forward the projects could be larger — up to 30 percent of a property with a maximum of 50 acres — and would need to come to the Planning Commission or the Board of Supervisors for rezoning under a change McGuire and Gorin backed.
It would safeguard viewsheds and wildlands that otherwise could be jeopardized, McGuire said.
“One mistake can have a generation of negative impacts,” he said.
Carrillo, on edge throughout the board’s deliberation, barely contained his frustration.
“I find some of the conversations here rather amusing, but I won’t focus my comments on that,” he said. “I cannot support the recommendations.”
He urged Rabbitt, the chairman, to delay a formal vote so the full board could weigh in later.
That leaves all eyes on Zane, a strong advocate of the county power plan but also an ally of conservation groups. She could find herself in the middle of a shifting board when it returns to the issue Aug. 6.
By that time, a formal vote on an initial power supply contract for the public agency could be just days away.
The power venture and land protection measures don’t have to be mutually exclusive, conservation officials and power agency advocates say.
“You can support the landscape protections we’re asking for — and that the Planning Commission backed — and still get what you need for the power plan,” said Rosatti, the Conservation Action leader.
Zane’s stance could be key to how that balance tips, he predicted.