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Neenach landowner, filmmaker and energy consultant Richard Skaggs warns Fairmont Town Council Vice President David Hyatt about the " divide and conquer " tactics he fears eager energy companies and Los Angeles County politicians will use on residents of the Western Antelope Valley. Many residents fear there is a push to place billions of dollars of energy plants in the area without adequate planning for cumulative impacts on the region.
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"We're here because this is where the trees grow sideways and the sun burns bright," said Nat Parker, product manager of Element Power. He is representing one of about 33 companies that have targeted the Western Antelope Valley for utility-scale wind and solar installations.
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Nat Parker shows a landowner the " distressed farmland " his company has acquired for their 330MW plant. He invited the community to be part of the planning process, to decide what combination of wind and solar will work best for the aesthetic concerns of the neighbors.
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Attorney David Jefferies stood to read a blistering letter—as an individual—against the Antelope Acres Town Council for, he said, extending its boundaries in a quest for mitigation funds that " belong to " the Fairmont area.
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Fairmont Council Vice President David Hyatt, Secretary David Jefferies and President David Kerr said they are considering bylaw changes. They circulated a notebook showing the changes, mainly designed to remove voluntary adherence to the Ralph M. Brown Act. The Brown Act safeguards citizens’ rights to be present when elected representatives are making decisions in the name of the public. The safeguards are to protect the public from " back room deals" and to maintain transparency in public proceedings.
Fairmont Called ‘Center of Renewable Energy Business’ As Council Considers Dumping Public Access Bylaws
By Patric Hedlund
“There are a lot of gunslingers in the west,” Nat Parker of Oregon-based Element Power told the Fairmont Town Council this month. No one misunderstood him. “The west” he is speaking about is the Western Antelope Valley, at the southern doorstep of the Frazier Mountain Communities, along Highway 138.
The “gunslingers” are about 33 competing renewable energy companies. They are scooping up land for wind and solar farms in southern Kern County (bordering Rosamond) and northern Los Angeles County (in Supervisor Michael Antonovich’s district, which includes Gorman).
The companies are launching campaigns to lobby L.A. County public officials behind closed doors and—though this may soon change—to introduce themselves to the public in rural town council meetings.
About 20 people from Neenach, Antelope Acres, the Lakes, and the Fairmont area gathered at the WeeVill Market for the Thursday, April 21 meeting of the Fairmont Town Council.
The smells of Taco Thursday circulated through the building during the program. People were grateful that WeeVill has reopened and many were showing their appreciation by dining on tacos at cafe tables during the program. At one point Parker stopped his presentation to say. “Stop! Do you smell that? I think I’m going into a bacon coma.” But the thrust of his comments were almost poetic:
“We are here because this is a place where the trees grow sideways and the sun burns bright; you are living in the hotbed of renewable energy in the United States. The western section of the Antelope Valley boasts the most consistent high-speed winds in the country. The winds peak in the late afternoon. That is also the peak-use time for electricity, when people come home from work and make dinner. Making power available when people use it the most is important, from our point of view.”
Parker is project manager for Element Power, which has about seven other energy farm projects in development around the country. He said his group opened a local office about a year ago and has knit together a continuous tract of about 2,400 acres through lease purchase and straight lease contracts (under which some property owners will receive royalties from power generated on their land, he said).
There are two small patches of “SEA” or Significant Ecological Areas within Element’s tracts, but the majority is previously disturbed agricultural land, used for growing alfalfa and grazing cattle.
Parker emphasized that he understands environmentalists want to see disturbed farmland rather than pristine habitat on the hillsides utilized for the alternative energy facilities coming into the area.
He emphasized a desire to “differentiate” his project from that of NextEra Energy, which wants to use the hillsides above Lake Elizabeth and Lake Hughes for 150 wind turbines that stand about 490 feet high. That plan ran into a solid wall of popular opposition at the Lakes Town Council meeting on April 2 when a notable number of the 150 residents attending became nearly hostile.
“One of the hardest things we are going to have to do is show people what is different about us,” Parker said, making a focused pitch for community support. “We’ve done a year of raptor study in helicopters and done burrowing owl studies, figuring out how we can avoid impact to bats and other species.”
And then he opened the issue of economic incentives.
“It matters who you have to build and run these factories. The Antelope Valley has a highly skilled workforce here who can build and operate these facilities.
“We need your support, your passion, and we’re counting on that. This will create jobs. The current unemployment rate in the valley is 17 percent. Our project will generate 300 jobs during construction and 12 to 20 permanent jobs….”
Parker said “we have not baked the project and said ‘here it is.’ We want your input. We have three to four distinct options” for achieving the goal of generating about 330 MW of renewable energy.
The first, he said, is to use “larger modern wind turbines in conjunction with solar photovoltaic.” The other options would use all wind or all solar. “Lets look at the aesthetics, and make informed decisions. Element Power’s preferred alternative is to use a combination,” Parker said.
There were a variety of questions. Photos of poppies growing up to the base of turbines in Spain were viewed with skepticism. Cindy Bonano asked, “How much fire clearance is required per turbine? That ridge is a high fire area. As pretty as it looks on screen, I can’t see the county allowing poppies to grow up to the base of a turbine because of the need for fire abatement. A grassland fire is a problem to us. It goes crazy….”
The Ralph M. Brown Act—What’s the Big Deal?
Another form of wildfire spreading across the Antelope Valley is the move by rural town councils to remove voluntary compliance with the Ralph M. Brown Act from their bylaws. The Brown Act safeguards the right of people to expect transparency from government bodies, and the right to be present when elected representatives are making decisions that affect their lives. Decisions made behind closed doors, out of the public eye, are illegal.
Members of town councils in Antonovich’s district are beginnng to refer to these safeguards that are part of the Brown Act as “cumbersome.” It is reported that Leona Valley Town Council recently removed the Brown Act from their bylaws.
The Fairmont Town Council circulated a notebook showing a proposal that the Brown Act be stricken from its byelaws, too. In its place is a reference to using the Brown Act “as a guide” for giving notice prior to a public meeting. However, the altered draft does not appear to put in place any protection against private meetings with developers to make private deals, such as that made by members of the Fairmont Town Council with NRG Solar last month.
Fairmont Town Council Secretary David Jefferies (an attorney who appeared to have brokered the deal) and Keith Latham of NRG Solar told those who attended the council meeting March 24 that they would not be able to see the deal that had been privately arranged with the company, but that the appeal filed with L.A. County Regional Planning against NRG Solar’s project would be withdrawn. The deal will not be shown to the public, including the people who live within the Fairmont district and are represented by the elected members of the Fairmont Council, until after NRG begins building its solar farm in June.
After the April 21 meeting adjourned there were many smaller conversations in the WeeVill Market cafe. Neenach landowner, filmmaker and energy consultant Richard Skaggs warned Fairmont Town Council Vice President David Hyatt about the "divide and conquer " tactics he fears eager energy companies and Los Angeles County politicians will use on residents in rezoning the Western Antelope Valley for energy installations. Many residents have expressed concern that there is a rush to accommodate energy plants worth billions of dollars in the area before adequate regional planning is in place to mitigate cumulative impacts on the residents and the habitat.
This is part of the April 29, 2011 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.
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