Update, August 21, 2015: Donna Tisdale notified us that the backcountry "celebration over the death of Soitec's Boulevard projects was a bit premature. Today, County staff informed me that Soitec is going to remove the 160 cargo containers full of potentially toxic batteries from their Rugged Solar project and will resubmit the revised EIR for certification by the Board of Supervisors. (Back in February, Soitec self-terminated their Tierra Del Sol Solar project just 1 month after receiving Board approval due to a lack of buyers.) Staff is trying to docket the revised EIR for the Board agenda by October so they can meet the Court's order to report back by November 2nd on how they plan to comply," adds Tisdale, who concludes, "The battle to save the backcountry continues."
By Miriam Raftery
Photo: A Soitec solar panel in Newbury Springs, California
August 20, 2015 (Boulevard) – The last of four massive solar projects proposed by Soitec Solar in Boulevard may now be officially dead.
On August 7th, Superior Court Judge Joel R. Wohlfeil overturned County Supervisors’ approvals of Soitec’s Rugged Acres and Tierra del Sol projects, because the approvals violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) Soitec and the County failed to file an appeal by the August 14th deadline, says Donna Tisdale, chair of the Boulevard Planning Group and founder of Backcountry Against Dumps, which filed the lawsuit aiming to halt the project. View the court's judgment.
“Soitec’s Boulevard projects, approved for 1,200 acres, are now dead and buried!” Tisdale wrote in an email to project opponents. Any new projects proposed for those sites would need to start all over at step one,” requiring a new environmental impacts review, a lengthy and costly process. “I have asked the County for details on when they will set aside their voided approvals, as mandated by the court,” Tisdale added.
Judge Wohlfeil wrote in his judgment, “The San Diego County Board of Supervisors (the "Board") shall RESCIND AND VACATE its approval of the Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Report (the "FPEIR")and associated Findings and Statement of Overriding Considerations for the Soitec Solar Project
1 that Petitioners challenged herein (the "Project"), Major Use Permit Nos. PDS2012-3300-12-007
and PDS2012-3300-12-010, respectively, for the Rugged and Tierra Del Sol components of the
Project, Ordinance No. 10375 rezoning the Tierra Del Sol component of the Project, and
Resolution No. 15-015 disestablishing the Maupin Agricultural Preserve, because such approvals
are contrary to the California Environmental Quality Act ("CEQA"), Public Resources Code
section 21000 et seq”.
Soitec originally proposed four projects, two of which were approved by the County for construction: Rugged Acres and Tierra del Sol. But the financially troubled French company later announced it has exited the solar business, despite receiving $25 million in federal money for its solar manufacturing in Rancho Bernardo. Soitec sold its Rancho Bernardo facility to ConcernSolar and withdrew its plans for Tierra del Sol.
All of the projects drew strong community opposition over concerns that included destruction of meadows and wetlands, habitat and scenic views as well as increased fire danger and depletion of groundwater for construction, among other concerns. (Photo, right: meadow with mature pine tree at one of the proposed Soitec sites) The lands included public and private property at the gateway to McCain Valley, a federal recreation area, and multiple federal wilderness locations.
Only Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who represents East County, voted against the Soitec projects in Boulevard. The other four Supervisors voted yes. State Senator Joel Anderson, who has been named as a likely candidate to run against Jacob in the next Supervisorial race, lobbied Supervisors to support the Soitec Project on Rough Acres Ranch owned by the Hamann Companies, a major contributor to Anderson’s campaigns.
News of the projects’ demise in the wake of Soitec opting not to appeal its final project drew reactions of glee from some community members.
In an e-mail to ECM, Tisdale wrote, “We did not win on all counts in our lawsuit, but we did win in the face of extreme odds and undeservedly strong political support for Soitec. This was an especially sweet and gratifying win for us. Soitec's Boulevard projects were un-democratically sanctioned by Governor Brown as fast-tracked Environmental Leadership projects, the feds granted them $25 million for their Rancho Bernardo factory, the state gave them $10 million or more for employee training and such, San Diego City expanded the Enterprise Zone and gave them additional incentives and benefits. And the County Planning and Development Services, Planning Commission, and 4 of our 5 Supervisors bent over backwards to ram Soitec's experimental and high-priced projects through the environmental review process by blatantly denying and/or overriding significant negative impacts to our community, Boulevard's Community Plan, and public health and safety overall. It was as if decision makers forgot all about the 14 years and millions of dollars invested in our General Plan Update that was supposed to keep rural communities rural and reduce development in fire prone areas.”
Tisdale concludes, “Community involvement, determination, and due diligence paid off in the end, along with Soitec's timely self implosion and decision to exit the solar business after SDG&E terminated their Power Purchase Agreements. Now, if we could only get Soitec to pay back all the public funds they wasted!
Howard Cook, former chair of the Jacumba Sponsor Group, also welcomed the news. “This is also a win for Jacumba,” he told ECM in an e-mail, noting that Jacumba’s water district had agreed to supply groundwater despite a Local Agencies Formation Commission (LAFCO) rule against outside water sales.
Cook adds, “ I also have to ask why our precious groundwater supplies are being promised to out of the country and out of state energy companies.” He cited Iberdrola of Spain, developer of Tule Wind, Soitec Solar, a French firm, and Nextera of Florida, which aims to build Jacumba Solar—all seeking water from Jacumba. If groundwater supplies become depleted, as a hydrologist from San Diego State warned could occur with the Soitec Solar projects alone, Cook fears residents in Jacumba could be forced to leave their town.
The news also brought cheer to many residents in Pine Valley, where shareholders in the Pine Valley Mutual Water Company have been seeking to overturn their water board's decision to sell 5 million gallos of Pine Valley water to the newly formed Rough Acres Water District that had aimed to use Pine Valley's water for the Rugged Acres solar project.
Robert Zaidman, a Pine Valley resident praised Tisdale and "all the great people that stood up for Boulevard have reminded us that there are avenues of justice...What about the public trustees that failed to deliver it? Boulevard is an example of actual heroism, not the mythical kind we see from those who self-anoint and self appoint."
Correction: The Jacumba Community Service District has forwarded correspondence to/from County Counsel advising that sale of water to SDG&E or other outside uses is allowed as long as it is non-potable water. View correspondence here.