Settlement allows beehive solar project to go forward

A settlement has been reached that will allow a 73-acre solar farm and apiary to proceed in Clackamas County, Ore.

Construction of a controversial 73-acre solar farm and apiary will proceed in Oregon’s Clackamas County after farmland conservationists struck a settlement deal with the developer.

Earlier this year, the 1,000 Friends of Oregon nonprofit challenged the project’s approval before the state’s Land Use Board of Appeals after Clackamas County determined the development wouldn’t preclude commercial agriculture because beehives would be kept on the property.

Normally, conditional use permits limit solar arrays on farmland to 12 acres, but in this case, a county hearings officer found the panels would displace fewer than 12 acres due to the honeybee forage growing beneath them.

Under the settlement, 1,000 Friends of Oregon has agreed to withdraw the objection as long as the developer, Pacific Northwest Solar LLC, agreed to conduct a study of the how the dual use works, said Damien Hall, the company’s attorney.

The solar company also agreed not to oppose temporary rules implemented by Oregon’s Land Conservation and Development Commission, which clarify solar sites can’t occupy more than 12 acres without an exception to the statewide goal of preserving farmland, said Meriel Darzen, attorney for 1,000 Friends of Oregon.

There’s no data in Oregon about co-locating an apiary with solar panels, so the facility served as a good opportunity for a pilot project, she said. “We think it’s an interesting concept.”

Meanwhile, LCDC has convened an advisory committee to examine whether to make the temporary rules permanent and whether to otherwise update Oregon’s land use regulations for solar facilities.

Solar facilities on Oregon farmland have increasingly been stirring controversy in recent years, with critics fearing that multiple 12-acre projects are being sited close together to sidestep regulations for larger projects.

“Cumulative impact is a big issue for the agricultural community,” said Jim Johnson, land use specialist with the Oregon Department of Agriculture, during the committee’s first meeting on Oct. 4 in McMinnville, Ore.

The landscape for solar developments is different now than in 2010, when a previous rules advisory committee on solar regulations was held and much of the attention was focused on Central and Eastern Oregon, rather than the Willamette Valley, said Jon Jinings, community services specialist with the Department of Land Conservation and Development.

“We have some experience under our belt now,” he said.

A couple other developments have recently occurred on the legal front regarding solar facilities on farmland.

In Yamhill County, the state’s Land Use Board of Appeals has upheld the county’s denial of a conditional use permit for a 12-acre project that was opposed by the owners of a nearby vineyard.

In its Oct. 3 opinion, LUBA rejected claims by the developer, Yamhill Creek Solar LLC, that a county commissioner was biased against the project and that the county improperly weighed land use goals and policies when analyzing the proposal, among other claims.

“Given the deferential review we must apply to the county’s interpretative and evidentiary judgments, and the inherently subjective nature of evaluating whether the proposed use is consistent with a broad range of comprehensive plan goals and policies, the county’s ultimate conclusion that the balance of the applicable goals and policies weigh against the proposed use is not reversible on appeal,” the ruling said.

In Jackson County, a ruling that struck down the approval of an 80-acre solar project near Medford will be reviewed by the Oregon Supreme Court.

In 2017, the county was found by LUBA to have improperly granted the project an exception to Oregon’s goal of preserving farmland, which was upheld by the Oregon Court of Appeals on different legal grounds in May.

On Oct. 4, Oregon’s highest court accepted a petition to review eight questions of law regarding solar land use regulations and has scheduled oral arguments for March 5 in Salem, Ore.

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