Update: Fairmont Town Council Asks for Emergency Planning Meeting on First Solar Intentions

UPDATE Western Antelope Valley / FAIRMONT / NEENACH (June 28, 2011, 10 p.m.)—The Fairmont Town Council  in Western Antelope Valley voted on June 27 to seek an urgent emergency meeting with the L.A. County Department of Regional Planning.

The letter, signed by residents and the council, speaks of "glaring insufficiencies" in the design and construction plans for AV Solar Ranch One, which is to be placed on 2,100 acres. A significant portion is within the historic Fairmont community. Specific complaint was made about what was characterized as the failure of the company to make "meaningful" contact with residents. It also said the proposed project is inconsistent with the "principles and values stated in the Antelope Valley Area Plan." 

In strongly worded terms, the letter said that architects of the project are obliged to make a "collaborative effort" with community members, but that they had not. The council’s letter calls AV Solar Ranch One "a bullyng, unwanted neighbor whose pursuit of profits apparently has blinded it to any concepts of area cooperation," then asks for an immediate review of the project "prior to commencement of construction."

First Solar Development Director Jack Pigott said that contruction is slated to begin by July 5.

At the Monday evening meeting, residents told developers their many concerns. Pigott said many of those had been addressed in the Environmental Impact Report, and that the company’s plans had been approved by the Los Angeles County Planning Commission. He said that the Fairmont Town Council should become familiar with the EIR mitigation components before submitting the letter.

Council President David Kerr said that First Solar had not notified its immediate neighbors to give them an opportunity to be part of the EIR hearing process. First Solar representatives said that L.A. County had notified neighbors in mailings. Residents ridiculed the reply, saying that rural mail addressed to street boxes is often not delivered or received and that none of them had received notification. Only one resident, Pat Chiodo, said he had been to an EIR hearing at Antelope Acres Town Council, about 15 miles from the Fairmont area.

Residents said it appears that L.A. County employees in Supervisor Antonovich’s office or in downtown L.A. had misinformed the solar company regarding who represents the 2,000 residents who live where the company hopes to build AV Solar Ranch One. "We are the ones who will be paying for this project and the other ones that want to build here, with the change to our way of life," Kerr said.

Cumulative impact issues were raised throughout the meeting, with some saying the 7 foot chain link fences topped with barbed wire throughout the valley by 33 different utility-scale wind and solar renewable energy projects will turn their open landscape into a penitentiary environment. Pigott dismissed their anxiety, saying the setbacks and landscaping along paved roads for his project would be adequate. He emphasized that the company is adhering to the requests by downtown L.A. County Planning Department personnel. Rural residents scoffed at the "ignorance" of urban planners regarding their needs.

The town council tabled a motion to file a restraining order that could delay the beginning of AV Solar Ranch One construction.

The next day, on Tuesday, June 28, Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit introduced a motion regarding a two percent franchise fee on another large First Solar installation to the east, in Riverside County. There was a five hour hearing, according to Benoit’s press coordinator, and the motion has been sent for further study by county staff. The two percent fee could total $3.5 million a year in revenues to the county, it was estimated, nearly $100 million over the projected life of the project.

Pigott laughed when Benoit’s proposal was mentioned at the Fairmont meeting. "We will never pay that," he said.

UPDATED Western Antelope Valley/ FAIRMONT/ NEENACH (June 25, 2011, 5:23 p.m., UPDATED June 26, 2011 at 5:30 and 8:20 a.m. and at 5:45 p.m.)—A special meeting was held at the WeeVill Market east of Neenach last Thursday, June 23 about AV Solar Ranch One, which developers say will be be the largest solar farm installation in California. A substantial part of it is being developed within the historic Fairmont area.

About 20 residents gathered at the meeting, along with three of the five-member board of the Fairmont Town Council—Dave Kerr, Dave Hyatt and Steve Werth. Unexpectedly, First Solar development executive Jack Pigott and a First Solar community affairs employee attended, saying they had flown in from San Francisco for the meeting. Reporters from The Mountain Enterprise and San Francisco-based GreenTechMedia.com also attended. Because Pigott’s arrival was unnanounced, he was not on the agenda. He said he did not bring specific information about the project to the meeting. Another special public meeting of the Fairmont Town Council has been set for Monday, June 27 at 6:30 p.m. to which Mr. Pigott is invited to bring data from the company’s plans and from the AV Solar Ranch One Environmental Impact Review (EIR). He has been asked to speak in detail about community concerns [see agenda below]. Pigott said his company expects to begin construction by July 5.

The agenda for the June 23 meeting included two items: writing a protest letter to the Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission and preparing for legal action. Council members said they must file legal protests before construction begins.

Residents said they want to know how construction and operation of the largest solar farm in California will alter their lives, the landscape and the wildlife of the Western Antelope Valley. First Solar’s Pigott said this installation will be capable of supplying electric power to 75,000 homes. Southern California Edison has signed a 25-year purchase agreement with the First Solar, which is among the largest renewable energy companies in the world, operating in Germany, Canada and the U.S.

Town Council President David Kerr repeatedly expressed dismay and annoyance that the company has never appeared before the Fairmont Town Council to answer the community’s concerns. Pigott said his company had been "instructed by Los Angeles County Supervisor [Michael] Antonovich’s office to have the scoping meeting and hearings at the Antelope Acres Town Council." Kerr and others complained that no postings of public hearings were made in the Fairmont area, which is the immediate neighbor to the planned facility.

It was implied that the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process used by the company was inadequate and had failed to notify neighbors whose property is immediately adjacent to the proposed AV Solar Ranch One project.

Antelope Acres is over 11 miles to the east, residents said. No legal notice about the CEQA hearings was printed in The Mountain Enterprise, which distributes in the Western Antelope Valley. Other newspapers do not regularly distribute in that area. The public hearings related to the company’s EIR process were finished in fall and winter of 2010. "We were done by December," Pigott said. The Fairmont Town Council began forming in October 2010, and was getting started at about the time that Pigott’s EIR was being certified by Los Angeles County.

On June 23 Fairmont residents asked Pigott about fences–specifically about their projected height, mode of construction and whether wildlife trails would be interrupted.  There were questions about use of chain link topped with barbed wire or razor wire, with concern about aesthetics, including a comment about transforming the open landscape of the Western Antelope Valley into a ”prison compound” environment. Specific information was requested about setbacks and landscaping for shielding the fence from view. Questions were asked about dislocating wildlife during construction. A tree farmer expressed concern about green mojave rattlers collecting on his property, which he said is nearby to the First Solar project. That raised additional questions about wildlife access to the 2,100 acres of the facility once construction is completed. Residents said accsss for small predators such as coyotes is essential for control of rodents in the area.

There was a request for more specific information about the amount of water that will be used in construction and during operation, about where that water will come from, and about how the water allocation has been made to the company. Concern was also expressed about dust control and microclimate changes due to temperature elevation around the solar panels.

Trail access for hikers and horseback riders was another issue about which residents seek specific details. The question of wear on roads during construction was raised, with an inquiry as to whether the company will repair roads back to current conditions after construction is complete. David Kerr asked whether there would be incentives to get construction crews to carpool to lessen impact on residents during the construction phase.

The group wanted to have a more focused dialogue about community development goals in the Fairmont area. After the meeting, this reporter heard discussion of such issues as the need for a mobile health clinic bus, 4-H club support and the possibility of youth vocational training programs through local schools about skills needed to operate the solar facility. Among the 33 wind and solar farms hoping to locate in the Western Antelope Valley, an estimated 660 permanent jobs may be created. There will be significantly more temporary jobs during the contruction phase.

"But our life here will be changed forever," said Fairmont Town Council member Steve Werth.

Here is the agenda just received for the Monday, June 27 meeting:

Fairmont Town Council Special Meeting Agenda

Date: Monday, June 27, 2011 6:30 PM

Location: Wee Vill Market 18348 W. Ave D, Lancaster, Ca. 93536

Question and Answer: Jack Pigott (Next Light/ First Solar)

1. Discussion and possible action (vote) on complaint letter re: AV Solar Ranch One

2. Discussion and possible action (vote) on legal remedies re: AV Solar Ranch One.

3. Discussion regarding Ad hoc subcommittees and Standing committees. Possible action (vote) to empower standing equine trails committee.

This is part of the June 24, 2011 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.

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