A developer of renewable energy projects that wants to build an 18,000-panel solar power plant south of Woody Creek will face Pitkin County’s full land-use review process, consisting of scrutiny from the Planning & Zoning Commission and the Board of County Commissioners as well as public hearings at meetings of both entities, according to a local consultant involved in the project.
Aspen planner Alan Richman, who is working with global developer Renewable Energy Systems, said claims that the company is seeking an expedited review process for the project simply aren’t true. Suzanne Wolff, the county’s assistant director of community development, confirmed that no corners will be cut in the process.
“We’re not getting an expedited process here,” Richman said. “This is about as lengthy and as comprehensive a process as you could have. There will be multiple public hearings, both at the P&Z and Board of County Commissioners, and no steps are getting skipped here.”
Last week, P&Z continued a presentation and a public hearing on the issue to Nov. 6. RES submitted its 183-page application to the county in May. An addendum to the application, with an updated study on the project’s expected effect on wildlife in the area, was supplied to the county last week.
According to the project application, Pitkin County Solar LLC, a subsidiary of RES Distributed LLC, would lease 33 acres of a 55-acre parcel from the Aspen Consolidated Sanitation District for the solar energy farm. From 1974 to 2005, the sanitation district used the land as a biosolids disposal site.
The project is a for-profit venture by Pitkin County Solar to supply energy to Holy Cross Energy, the nonprofit electricity cooperative that supplies power to over 55,000 customers in the Roaring Fork Valley and along the I-70 corridor of the Western Slope. The 5-megawatt facility would supply energy to Holy Cross’s existing distribution system through a half-mile extension to an existing distribution line.
Richman said RES sought to postpone its presentation to November in order to provide more information to the county to address community concerns related to the solar farm’s impacts on wildlife and other issues. There’s some confusion, he said, concerning the extent of the “Location and Extent Review/1041” process under which the project will be examined.
In an Aug. 21 letter, the W/J Metropolitan District, which oversees affordable housing in the area, expressed a concern to the county that the Pitkin County Solar proposal would be treated as an initiative by a public utility. “We request that the RES proposal be given the scrutiny it requires, and only a more comprehensive review process can achieve that goal,” the letter from Wayne Ethridge, president of the W/J Metro District and Homeowners Association, states.
“In point of fact, the 1041 process is more comprehensive than what you would typically go through with a project like this,” Richman said. “This is not a simple review. The reason we [continued the presentation] on Tuesday is because we provided some additional information to respond to some of the questions people have been raising and to be more thorough about it.”
Aside from the technical nature of the review process, however, other concerns are being raised by neighbors of the property, with impacts to wildlife being front and center. Other questions surround what neighbors believe is a pattern of continued industrialization in areas near Woody Creek.
The Woody Creek Caucus pointed out in a letter to the county that the site is a gathering place for elk that wander the general area of White Star Ranch and the W/J Ranch. “We think that consideration should be added to the application to provide passageways through the project, since 33 acres covers a large area and it is unrealistic to think that wildlife can ‘just walk around the fence,’” the caucus said. The “walk around the fence” comment references a statement from the company’s initial statements on wildlife impacts.
Representing the W/J Metropolitan District, Ethridge voiced a similar sentiment. “We additionally request an independent evaluation of the effects the RES proposal will have on wildlife, particularly elk, who make extensive use of the property proposed for the solar farm. We find it difficult to trust a wildlife analysis that concludes there will be no impact on the elk, since they can simply ‘walk around the fence.’ No consideration was given to the effects of further restricting the movement of elk, and ‘they can walk around the fence’ is an extraordinarily cavalier comment.”
To address the continuing questions surrounding effects on wildlife, Pitkin County Solar hired Basalt ecologist Jonathan Lowsky, of Colorado Wildlife Science, to reassess the property in August. According to Lowsky’s report, provided to the county last week, Colorado Parks and Wildlife data indicates that the project area does not encompass wildlife habitats regulated by the county’s land use code. Additionally, the project area does not fall within areas “mapped or field verified as bighorn sheep, mule deer or elk migration corridors, production habitat, severe winter range or winter concentration areas.”
“Bighorn sheep do not occur on or within proximity to the property and moose have not been observed on the property,” Lowsky wrote. “Mule deer occur on the [project area] throughout the non-winter months and early winter in light winters. They are joined by elk during the migration and transition periods in late fall into early winter and in late spring. East-west movement by elk and mule deer across the [area] is largely to access water at the Roaring Fork River and forage within its riparian habitat on the west side of the property. North-south movement also occurs to some degree … .”
Lowsky said he conducted a site assessment of the project area and surrounding property on Aug. 15. He found “pellet piles” — excrement from deer and elk. “Recent deer pellets and tracks were observed but all of the elk pellets were from last winter and early spring and no elk tracks were found,” Lowsky wrote. Moderate to heavy signs of deer and elk were observed on land outside of the project area, “allowing for continued, unimpeded following implementation of the proposal,” he added.
With regard to the habitat for other species, Lowsky describes the area as “degraded,” with little native vegetation. “Songbirds and small mammals are known to be abundant on adjacent properties where the plant communities are relatively intact and the west-facing slopes on the west side of the property but the lack of horizontal or vertical habitat diversity on the [project area] and the flat areas of the property outside the [project area] supports few songbirds or small mammals,” he wrote.
In his conclusions, Lowsky states that the project area meets all of the “renewable energy project site selection criteria” outlined by Defenders of Wildlife, a national conservation organization, to avoid impacts. He says all exclusion fences surrounding the project area should be 8 feet tall with high-visibility wire or regularly placed survey flagging along the top wire and at 5.5 feet so that elk and deer can become accustomed to the fence and won’t try to jump it. Also, contractors should be prevented from bringing their dogs to the site during construction.
The addendum from RES also notes that the company held an open house to discuss the project with interested community members in July. That meeting was held at the Aspen campus of Colorado Mountain College.