A solar power project planned for 80 acres of high-value farmland in Oregon’s Jackson County has been shut down by the state’s Land Use Board of Appeals.
Earlier this year, Jackson County’s board of commissioners approved the project by excepting it from Oregon’s land use goal of preserving agricultural land.
Solar facilities on prime farmland must obtain such an exception if they’re larger than 12 acres.
The county’s decision was challenged by the 1,000 Friends of Oregon conservation group before LUBA, which has now agreed the project doesn’t qualify for such an exception.
LUBA’s ruling “re-establishes that these projects have to comply with statewide land use goals,” said Meriel Darzen, attorney for 1,000 Friends of Oregon.
Darzen said 1,000 Friends of Oregon doesn’t oppose solar energy but would prefer that sites are not developed on high-value farmland.
“I would still assume there are a lot of options,” such as industrial areas within “urban growth boundaries” or marginal lands, she said. “Just as with any energy facility, we think the siting considerations are important and should not be bypassed.”
Origis Energy, the project’s developer, said it’s too early to know if the ruling will have broader implications for solar energy siting in Oregon.
“The decision is certainly disappointing and our team is currently discussing and vetting all options at our disposal. We will make a decision on how to proceed shortly,” said Michael Chestone, a consultant for the company.
The project’s developer claimed that Jackson County was obligated to promote renewable energy under another statewide land use goal.
LUBA rejected this argument, finding that Oregon’s goal of energy conservation is not a requirement to build new renewable energy facilities.
Jackson County was also incorrect to approve the project due to its “comparative advantage” of being located in an area with adequate sunlight and topography near an electrical substation, the ruling said.
“That the subject property is flat, 80 acres in size and exposed to the sun does not render the property a ‘unique resource’” under Oregon law use rules, according to LUBA.
The project’s proximity to an electrical substation within the City of Medford’s “urban growth boundary” also doesn’t justify the land use goal exception, the ruling said.
It’s typical for industrial sites such as the substation to be located on the outskirts of an urban growth boundary near farmland, LUBA said.
If proximity to these areas were a legitimate reason for converting farmland, such “exceptions would become commonplace given the strong economic incentives” for new development to occur near cities on inexpensive land, the ruling said.
Such an interpretation “could easily subvert one of the principal structures of the statewide land use program: the urban growth boundary,” according to LUBA.