The Linn County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday approved an application for a 12-acre solar farm just outside of Albany. It placed a key condition on the approval — the applicants must secure an independent wetlands analysis of the land before any ground breaks.
The decision comes after months of back and forth between officials and neighbors of the project. Neighbors opposed the project on numerous grounds but the one that seemed to resonate most with commissioners was potential environmental impacts.
The project, which will be built by Marble Solar and operated by Portland-based Sulus Solar, originally called for 20 acres of solar panels to be built on land along the Santiam Highway at Eicher Road. To try and limit the impact of the project on neighboring properties, the applicants dropped the proposal down to 12 acres.
The project was already approved by the Linn County Planning & Buildings Department back in February. That decision was appealed to the Planning Commission, which also approved the application, and then neighbors appealed that decision to Linn County board.
The initial hearing on the matter was held on April 28th, when the commissioners opted to make no decision and leave the record open for more documents to be submitted. Two of the three commissioners said that, based on the records submitted and on the letter of the law, they couldn’t find a reason to deny the application, even though they shared some of the same thinking as the opponents.
“This is one of those situations where what the law says and how I feel don’t match up,” said Commissioner Sherrie Sprenger. “I am not a fan of solar. Never have been. But when I went through the criteria … I could not find criteria in this that wasn’t in line with the law.”
Commission chair Roger Nyquist voted against the project, however, saying that this kind of project should be housed on industrial land, not a parcel slated for farm use. He also feared the precedent the board could set by allowing this project.
“This sets a precedent that I’m absolutely not comfortable with,” he said. “If you approve this, with the level of houses around this, we will have to approve this on any and every square inch of (exclusive farm use) property in this county.”
He was the lone dissenter on the vote to approve the application, as commissioners Sprenger and Tucker voted in favor. Nyquist was still able to influence the outcome, though, because the motion to approve the application was amended after he urged his fellow commissioners to consider what he thought would be a lenient state-run analysis of the wetlands on the flood plain there.
“I would find no comfort in assuring our constituents that the state will get this right in the way of wetlands analysis and delineations and proof of mitigations,” Nyquist. “My experience is, when it comes to land use in Oregon … what happens is whatever seems to be politically correct in the moment in the Portland metro area.”
The other commissioners agreed, so Tucker amended his motion to approve with the condition that applicants use “a licensed and qualified wetlands analysis firm” to determine the level of action that would be needed to avoid environmental concerns.
The application states that any structures would be at least 50 feet away from the edge of the wetlands, but there was no impact survey completed ahead of the application.
“I see this as one of those things I would not want in my back yard,” Tucker said. “But that happens and these things have to go somewhere.”
Sprenger even went so far as to advise the opposing neighbors to stick with the wetlands aspect of the project if they want to tie it up.
“I would encourage the neighbors to also engage in that wetlands process,” she said. “I think that’s going to be the potential stumbling block.”
Troy Shinn covers healthcare, natural resources and the Linn County government. He can be reached at 541-812-6114 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be found on Twitter at @troydshinn.