The sheep — and the sprinklers and maybe the honeybees — carried the day as the Delta County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday unanimously approved a once-spurned solar project on agricultural land.
The 80-megawatt Garnet Mesa project, on 475 acres, had been rejected by the commission in March over concerns about the loss of farmland and in the face of opposition from neighbors.
The project by Guzman Energy, a Denver-based wholesale power provider, was revamped adding irrigation to support even more sheep than initially proposed — as many as 1,000 now — and as a sweetener the prospect of using the land for an apiary was also thrown in.
That did not assuage area residents who turned up at Tuesday’s hearing in force to raise concerns about adverse impacts on property values, water rights, wildlife and beautiful vistas and even questioned whether it would be too hot for the sheep among the solar panels in summer.
Some folks stop just short of threats. “With the election coming up we are going to vote,” said Richard Lightfoot, a neighboring resident. “If you vote for this, it is obvious you don’t care about the people.”
The majority of people who testified during a three-hour hearing supported the project. “Given these times it would be very prudent for the people in Delta County to have locally produced power,” Don Foster, a Hotchkiss resident, told the commission.
The project, which would provide power to the local rural electric cooperative, had met all the requirements of the county’s land use code, Carl Holm, the county’s community development and natural resources director, told the commissioners.
The solar farm had even met the more extensive list of requirements the federal Bureau of Land Management uses for siting solar projects and it is posting a $4.5 million bond to ensure for the cleanup of the land.
“Apply the Delta County land use code as it is, not as perhaps you might want it to be,” said Natasha Leger, executive director of Paonia-based Citizens for a Healthy Community, an environmental group. “The only issue is compliance with the code.”
It left the commissioners with a dilemma.
“I hate land use decisions, I absolutely hate ’em,” Commissioner Don Suppes said. “They are the worst part of being a county commissioner … because it affects people’s lives.”
Suppes was the one commissioner who voted for the project in March. “We cannot conduct land use decisions with a not-in-my-backyard” attitude, he said. “Not in my backyard is not a way to legislate land use.”
Commissioner Wendall Koontz, who had voted against the project, said, “I think this is a good project, but it is in a very poor area.”
“But this is the project we have to evaluate; we could wish for unicorns and fairies but we aren’t going to get them,” Koontz said. Commissioner Mike Lane made the decision unanimous.
No unicorns and fairies, but definitely sheep and maybe honeybees.
Matthew Kosakowski, a principal with Citra Power, which is developing the site for Guzman Energy, told the commissioners this was no “run-of-the-mill project you’d see on the Front Range.”
“We have continued to make the project stronger and stronger … to make sure this will be a successful agricultural project into the future,” Kosakowski said.
The Delta-Montrose Electric Association, the local co-op, was aided by Guzman Energy in financing its $136.5 million exit from the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association. Tri-State required the co-op to buy 95% of its electricity from the association.
Guzman received a 12-year contract to provide DMEA with power and the Garnet Mesa project would be the first major development in their partnership and enable the co-op to reach 20% local generation. The remainder of the electricity generated by the project will be sold wholesale on the grid by Guzman Energy.
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