Proposed solar farm near Aspen gets OK from Pitkin County Planning and Zoning; next up county commissioners
Members of the Pitkin County Planning and Zoning Commission voted 4-1 on Tuesday night to recommend that county commissioners approve a controversial 35-acre solar farm near Woody Creek.
The vote came after two-and-a-half hours of mainly public comment on the proposal, which pits residents of Woody Creek and Brush Creek Village, who will have to look at or otherwise deal with the 18,000-panel solar array, against county and valley residents who want renewable energy.
Planning and Zoning Commissioner James VaShancey, a Brush Creek Village resident, cast the sole dissenting vote against the project Tuesday and echoed his neighbors’ comments in recommending against it.
“I’m a passionate supporter of the environment and renewable energy and fighting climate change,” he said, noting that he was “on the fence” with the solar farm before the vote. “But a couple things bother me about this one.”
First, VaShancey said, the project’s countywide benefits are less than the impacts it would provide. Further, he objected to the size of the solar farm and the “huge” visual impacts, though he said he won’t be able to see the farm from his home.
“The scale of this project seems massive and out of character for the county,” he said.
Commissioner Chelsea Clark, however, spoke for the other point of view and said the focus must be on climate change and protecting the environment.
“It’s not your Aspen,” she said. “It’s our Aspen and our county. We all live here.”
Commissioner Monty Thompson urged both sides to work together to achieve the best project for everyone, but also spoke of the bigger picture.
“(This) has to be about an ‘us’ moment rather than a ‘me’ moment,” he said.
The ultimate approval of the project now lies in the hands of Pitkin County commissioners, who will hold public hearings on the solar farm in the near future.
The solar farm is a joint project among the Aspen Sanitation District, Holy Cross Energy and a private entity that would build and operate the solar farm called Renewable Energy Systems, an international green energy company with offices in Broomfield.
The sanitation district would lease to RES 35 of 55 acres it owns southeast of the intersection of Brush Creek Road and Highway 82 to build 18,000 solar panels that would track the sun from east to west. The land, which was previously used to process biosolids for 30 years, is located between McLain Flats Road and the Rio Grande Trail and would be fenced off and screened from trail users through the use of berms and vegetation.
Because of the former industrial use and because the parcel lies under the flight path of the Aspen airport, it is not suitable for residential housing. It is, in fact, ideal for a solar farm because of those factors, its year-round solar exposure and close proximity to Holy Cross transmission lines, project advocates have said.
The 5 megawatts of power generated by the panels would be transferred to Holy Cross transmission lines via an underground, half-mile connector line the company would build. Estimates vary from meeting to meeting, but that amount of electricity would power about 1,000 homes, according to RES officials.
The sanitation district, which uses about $250,000 worth of electricity annually, would offset those costs by around 25% through Holy Cross energy credits and lease payments from RES, said Bruce Matherly, sanitation district manager. Those savings would be passed on to taxpayers in the form of rate reductions, he said.
RES estimates the solar farm will cost between $6.2 million and $7.2 million to build, said Conor Goodson, RES spokesman. That money will come from an as-yet unidentified investor with enough of a tax liability to receive a 30% federal tax credit, which is scheduled to be reduced at the end of this year, he said.
For Holy Cross, the project helps the company achieve its goal of making 70% of the power it supplies to customers come from renewable energy by 2030.
Tuesday marked the second Planning and Zoning meeting about the solar farm, following a July 16 meeting in which nearby residents slammed the project for threatening to ruin their views, property values and health as well as destroying wildlife habitat. And while only a handful spoke in favor of the project three weeks ago, far more showed up in support of the solar farm Tuesday.
Mac Scott, an Old Snowmass resident, said he was “thrilled” about the project because it protects the environment, exemplifies the Aspen area’s history of progressive thinking and will benefit every resident of the Roaring Fork Valley. He equated a vote against the project as a vote for the extension of fossil fuel use.
“Climate solutions require us to get out of our comfort zone,” Scott said. “If not now, when? If not here, where?”
Eske Roennau, a 14-year-old Aspen High School freshman, touted his home country of Denmark’s investment in wind power despite the fact that its infrastructure is large and, to some, unsightly.
“I want to preserve my future in the beautiful mountains of Colorado,” he said. “Imagine the whole valley being self-sufficient.”
Former Aspen Mayor Bill Stirling said having the land available for a solar farm in the upper Roaring Fork Valley is a major factor in the project. He also said the project is in the long-term best interest of the community before summing up the opposition.
“(They say) ‘I love solar energy, but not here,’” Stirling said. “That’s like saying, ‘I like you, but not that much.’”
Finally, Olympic snowboarder and Aspen resident Gretchen Bleiler told commissioners that while the project was not a complete solution, it was “a step in the right direction.”
“This is necessary,” she said.
Many Brush Creek and Woody Creek residents also packed the Pitkin County commissioners’ meeting room Tuesday night as they did July 16, though Planning and Zoning Chairman Jeffrey Woodruff asked people to refrain from making the same points that were established at that meeting.
Nearby residents of the proposed project who didn’t speak at the first meeting, however, brought up similar issues, including possible glare from solar panels, wrong choice of location and viewplane obstruction.
John Pappas, a physician and Brush Creek resident, jarringly summed up some of those residents’ sentiments when he compared the solar farm to cancer.
“It reminds me of a giant, black, malignant melanoma,” he said. “A blight is an understatement.”
Alan Richman, a local planning consultant hired by RES, early in the hearing responded to some of the issues residents raised in the July 16.
He told commissioners that any reported glare would have to be remedied immediately or the project would have to be shielded. He also said Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s local wildlife manager has agreed that the area contains no critical habitat, and that Pitkin County’s landfill manager has said the landfill is not currently or in the near future an appropriate location for a solar array.
Finally, Richman said a claim that the solar farm would generate a cancer-causing electromagnetic field is the stuff of conspiracy theories.
Planning and Zoning commissioners Joe Krabacher and Cliff Weiss did not attend Tuesday’s meeting.
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Kevin Warner started his career with the U.S. Forest Service as a wilderness ranger in 2001. Now he’s taking over the key position as Aspen-Sopris District Ranger.