Proposed solar farm near Aspen draws full house for county’s plan and zoning meeting

For the opponents and proponents of a proposed solar farm near Woody Creek who packed a standing-room only public meeting Tuesday, it was micro versus macro.

Most residents of Woody Creek and Brush Creek are unhappy about the proposal to build 18,000 solar panels on 35 acres in their backyard, and took the opportunity Tuesday to slam the project, while also noting that they support green energy in general.

Supporters, who mostly don’t live in the area of the proposed farm, urged members of the Pitkin County Planning and Zoning Commission to keep their grandchildren and the larger picture of climate change clearly in view when they decide on the project.

After listening for two-and-a-half hours Tuesday evening, Planning and Zoning commissioners decided to adjourn for the night and continue discussion of the application until Aug. 6.

“We need more time to finish this up,” Commissioner Monty Thompson said. “We have enough to discuss that I don’t think we’d get done by midnight.”

The Planning and Zoning Commission will make a recommendation on the project that will be forwarded on to Pitkin County commissioners, who will have the final say on the farm.

The project is a partnership between the Aspen Sanitation District, Holy Cross Energy and Renewable Energy Systems, a private company that would build and operate the solar farm.

The sanitation district owns 55 acres of land southeast of Brush Creek Road and Highway 82 that it used to treat biosolids from 1976 until 2005, when that operation moved to the Pitkin County Landfill. For the solar farm, RES would lease 35 of the 55 acres from the sanitation district and install 18,000 solar panels that would track the sun as it moves across the sky from east to west.

An underground, half-mile connector line would route the 5 megawatts of solar-generated power to existing Holy Cross transmission lines. The power generated will be enough for 1,100 homes, said Conor Goodson, an RES spokesman.

Alan Richman, an Aspen planner hired by RES, said the location is ideal for a solar farm.

First, it’s publicly owned, vacant, large enough to accommodate the thousands of panels and allowed by special review under the county’s zoning rules, he said. It was used as an industrial site for 30 years, so it’s not a good location for residential housing, Richman said.

Once up and running, the farm will require no water or sanitation to operate and generate no noise, water or air pollution, he said.

“It is a passive facility that produces clean energy,” Richman said.

The plan does have scenic impacts for some surrounding residents, Richman said, though the law only requires the applicants to consider views from public roads.

“There’s no county protection for residential views,” he said.

However, Richman said the solar panels will blend in to the topography and do not rise above any ridgeline. The panels will not be more than 10½ feet high, he said.

A wildlife consultant told the planning commission that the area contains no major wildlife habitat or winter or summer elk ranges and that the solar panels wouldn’t block wildlife migration through the area. Those conclusions were backed up by a Colorado Parks and Wildlife official, the consultant said.

Area residents disputed nearly all of those points. One called the solar farm a “monstrosity,” another accused the agencies of constructing an electromagnetic field that will give her family cancer and several worried about their views and property values slipping.

“Nobody’s against solar,” said Lawson Wills, a Brush Creek Village resident and local attorney. “But this project can go just about anywhere. It doesn’t have to be located in a place where it offends people.

“We feel like we’re under some sort of attack with these industrial uses.”

Laurie Laing, a Brush Creek Village resident, echoed many of her neighbors when she said the solar farm would destroy the beautiful views from the subdivision. That, in turn, will impact the area’s property values, she said.

Bill Dinsmoor, Woody Creek Caucus moderator, joined many of his neighbors in urging the planning commission to consider the landfill as the site of the solar farm project. Wayne Ethridge, president of the W/J Ranch Homeowners Association, warned against the size of the project, which he said would be an “enormous” gray or black blight.

And Elizabeth Treadwell, a Woody Creek resident, disputed the wildlife consultant’s assessment of the property, saying there are frequently far more elk than he said there were.

“Long story short, you guys are killing the wildlife,” she said.

Not everyone at the meeting was against the project.

“I wish I could support my Woody Creek neighbors here today,” said Daniel Delano. “But I think in this context, black (solar panels are) beautiful.”

Delano said he worried that climate change “could end our civilization as we know it in the life of our grandchildren” and urged the planning commission to take the environmental long view.

Jason White, a planner for the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, said RFTA staff fully support the solar farm and plan to purchase energy it generates to both power the electric buses the agency soon will own and offset non-clean energy use to eventually make operations 100% renewable.

Natalie Raye Fuller, a Colorado Mountain College student, told commissioners she sits through many public meetings because she works for GrassRoots TV — which televises many of them — and when she heard about the solar project and Tuesday’s meeting, she had to come advocate for it.

“I knew I needed to be here as a millennial,” she said. “We are concerned for our future. In my opinion, I think many people are expecting to see this.”

And that was exactly Mona Newton’s point, as well. The executive director of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency said surveys have shown that 78% of Pitkin County residents want and would pay for more renewable energy, which improves health and environmental protection.

As for the views around Aspen, Woody Creek and Brush Creek, Newton said they may soon feature more dead trees and “brown ground,” which could be reduced by adding more solar panels.

“The natural views are changing around us,” she said. “We have 10 years to really make a difference in carbon emissions before there’s no turning back.”