Residents will have a chance to weigh in on a moratorium on solar farms in unincorporated areas of Yakima County during a public hearing next month.
Yakima County commissioners in late July enacted the six-month moratorium on moderate to large-scale solar farms in late July, saying county planners need time to devise proper siting and zoning codes for such operations.
Commissioners issued the moratorium after Yakima County’s hearing examiner approved a solar farm east of Moxee. Now commissioners want to change county rules to give them final say on such projects.
The 10 a.m. public hearing will be Oct. 4 in Room 33B in the basement of the Yakima County Courthouse at 128 N. Second St. in Yakima.
Public hearings are required within 60 days of enacting a moratorium.
A handful of solar farms have been either approved or are in the process on agricultural land along State Route 24 east of Moxee. Of those, one was approved by Gov. Jay Inslee after a state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council review and another by Yakima County’s hearing examiner. The others are being considered by EFSEC.
Solar farms can be approved by the county or EFSEC, which is more expensive than the county’s process.
Commissioner Amanda McKinney worries the county will become an epicenter for solar farms that displace agricultural land. The moratorium prevents the county from approving solar farms, but it’s not clear whether it affects EFSEC.
McKinney said she asked EFSEC not to approve any more projects until the county’s code has been updated.
Spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said EFSEC couldn’t comment on a moratorium it has yet to see.
“In such a case, we would review the moratorium in its context and then could determine potential impacts to proposed projects,” Smith said.
McKinney said the county has a duty under the state Growth Management Act — which requires local governments to devise growth management plans — to protect and preserve agricultural land.
McKinney said she has nothing against solar power, but the county shouldn’t be quick to give up ag land to such projects.
“It’s not being against solar power,” she said. “To me, it’s to assure our land is being used to its highest and best use. I think it’s shortsighted to put solar panels for 40 to 50 years on land that could be used to irrigate and store water. There needs to be a process.”
Growth Management Act
The sites along State Route 24 are all on land zoned agricultural with limited irrigation and no crops.
But county planning official Tommy Carroll said he’s worried solar power companies eventually will move into more fertile territory, where some farmers may be enticed to exchange crops for lucrative lease agreements with solar power companies.
“What do I do if it’s a high-quality orchard and someone wants to pull it out of ag land for a solar farm?” he said. “That’s what scares me.”
Carroll said the county is responsible for protecting and preserving agricultural land under the state Growth Management Act.
Specific criteria such as soil quality, irrigation availability and crops must be considered before rezoning ag land, Carroll said.
If not and someone opposed the project and zone change, the county could end up facing an appeal in Superior Court, Carroll said.
“It could be the neighbors to the proposed solar farm,” he said. “If the proposed solar farm is in the ag zone, they could argue that we aren’t protecting ag like we are required to do so under GMA.”
Carroll said EFSEC isn’t bound by the GMA and wasn’t sure if it would abide by the county’s moratorium.
“EFSEC, they do look at our county code, but the governor can override it,” he said.
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