By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
With renewable energy development now a central issue in Sonoma County, disputed rules that would govern the size and location of green energy projects are returning to the Board of Supervisors Tuesday for approval.
The zoning changes, which focus largely on solar systems, would open up more land in unincorporated areas to commercial-scale projects, including agricultural, industrial and business parcels.
The first test case could be a 23-acre solar panel installation proposed for a hayfield outside Petaluma, a project prohibited under current zoning but allowed under the revised rules up for approval.
The new zoning would also ease generation limits on non-commercial renewable systems installed for homes and businesses and lift them entirely for systems covering roofs or parking areas.
Most who have weighed in on the rules agree such projects — in the developed, urban environment — should come first.
The main dispute has centered on where and how to allow energy development on a wider swath of the county’s croplands, ranches and forested properties.
When the rules first came to the Board of Supervisors in May, that question divided key agricultural interests. Some favored strong protections against farmland conversions for energy generation, while others argued for flexibility and against a ban on projects in the county’s highest-value cropland, including vineyards.
The issue has also presented environmentalists with a complicated choice between priorities that can be at odds — green energy development and landscape protection.
The debate — mirrored across the country amid the wider rollout of renewable energy projects — has been especially significant because of the pending launch of Sonoma County’s public power agency, a venture built on the promise of local green energy generation.
Revisions to the proposed rules since May have favored farming and environmental groups that have argued for stronger regulations. The changes would put tighter limits on the size of projects on a vast swath of ranch- and forestland and allow for greater public input on the largest projects.
The rules appear to have the support of the majority of the Board of Supervisors, which was shorthanded with four members present in May when it postponed the issue for further study.
Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who missed that initial hearing and has since been seen as pivotal vote on the issue, last week called the rules “very reasonable,” saying they struck “a good balance” between land protection and allowing energy development.
“This county has made a huge investment to preserve agricultural land and open space,” Zane said, citing the approximately 105,000 acres protected by the county’s taxpayer-supported Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District. “Anything that would undermine that investment is very foolish.”
But a representative of local grape growers and chief critic of the rules in May continues to argue they are heavy handed.
Bob Anderson, executive director of the United Winegrowers of Sonoma County, has balked at the blanket prohibition on projects on some cropland, including about 16,000 acres of largely hillside or riverside property.
He contends those acres, which carry the same zoning as the county’s most prized farmland but are not designated by the state as prime, unique or important property, should not be subject to the commercial project ban. It would cover about 70,000 acres of cropland, including vineyard and orchard properties.
“It’s a big deal when you put that restriction on through the zoning power of government,” Anderson said.
In May, Anderson said he would urge his members — 250 growers and wineries — to pull their support for the county’s power agency without changes in his group’s favor.
Last week, he appeared to have backed off that threat, voicing some resignation about the political outcome.
“I think things are pretty much stuck where they were before,” he said. “We’ll just wait to see what the board does.”
Farming and environmental groups that have lobbied for stronger regulations, meanwhile, welcomed the regulatory stand.
Sonoma County Farm Bureau representatives have grudgingly signed off on size limits for projects in the largest chunk of new land being opened to energy development: 180,000 acres of pasture land, much of it in the south county.
Caps would limit the size of systems on those non-prime farm acres to 30 percent of the parcel, or a maximum of 50 acres. Ideally, Farm Bureau leaders said, those limits would be even tighter.
“That was the compromise we reached,” said Tito Sasaki, president of the county Farm Bureau. “We don’t want too much land converted for any other non-agricultural use.”
A smaller cap — at 15 percent of the parcel or up to 5 acres — would be implemented for 395,000 acres of ranches and forest properties zoned as rural resource lands. Commercial energy projects are currently allowed on that acreage, though none exist outside of The Geysers geothermal field.
Conservationists had lobbied for the tighter cap to limit impacts on scenery and wildlife habitat, resources they argue are important to sustain the region’s tourism and agricultural industries.
“Caution, I think, is appropriate in this circumstance,” said Dennis Rosatti, executive director of Sonoma County Conservation Action.
Commercial projects would also be subject to design and environmental review requirements and public input. Proposals that exceed size caps would only be permitted through rezoning to a new “Renewable Energy” district, a step that would trigger additional public input.
Supervisors Mike McGuire and Susan Gorin supported the stronger protections in May, while Supervisor Efren Carrillo was a lone voice favoring a lighter regulatory touch.
Supervisor David Rabbitt, who represents the south county and much of the pasture land that would be opened up to energy development, remains concerned about what the new rules could mean for the farmland in his district.
The 23-acre solar project proposed outside Petaluma, on a 130-acre hayfield off Frates and Adobe roads, looks to be the first test case.
Put forward by a Placer County firm, the 4-megawatt project — enough to power about 750 homes — is located across from a large PG&E substation and under high-voltage transmission wires. Proponents say it is an ideal spot to harness the sun’s energy.
But the City of Petaluma and a local environmental group have both weighed in with concerns about visual impacts and farmland conversion.
Rabbitt has also urged a cautious approach.
“Are we putting up a green light that will just allow the proliferation of these things and then we find out later that we were too liberal?” Rabbitt said. “We need to be thinking about the best uses of these lands and what the consequences will be.”