by Matie Belle Lakish
December 6 was a long day—for local residents, Tessera representatives, and Saguache County Commissioners Pace, Spearman, and Joseph. The official Public Hearing for the Tessera Solar Project in the San Luis Valley began at 2pm and was finally halted at 8:20pm, with a directive from the Commissioners that it would be reconvened at a later date so that all those who signed up to make comments would have an opportunity to do so. The deadline for written comments has also been extended until further notice.
The standing-room-only crowd which gathered for the Public Hearing filled the upstairs courtroom and flowed out into the foyer. Citizens also filled several pages with signatures of those wishing to address the Commissioners. The first order of business was a report on the sound levels by the firm Mestre-Greves, which was hired by the County, and paid for by Tessera, to basically “check the facts” of the sound study provided by HDR, Tessera’s choice. Mestre-Greves representative Matt Jones presented a detailed report that showed that the HDR report underestimated noise impacts.
Prior to testimony, Wendi Maez, Land Use Administrator, distributed a 14-page document created by Nancy Lauro of Russell Engineering that summarizes their findings to date as delineated in the County’s 1041 process. The summary says: “The project as currently proposed has the potential for significant positive and negative impacts to the County. There are still significant portions of the project that need additional review and information to be provided to insure protection of the community from the potential negative impacts. Should the BOCC agree that it appears that the impacts can be mitigated with additional review and studies and the applicant agrees to additional review,” three alternative actions are listed:
“A. Find that the project meets the required criteria for approval and direct staff to draft a permit with proposed written findings and conditions.” (This alternative is followed by five pages of “Suggested Conditions”. This document can be found on the website www.saguachecounty.net under Land Use, Tessera Solar Comment Letters, Russell Engineering Staff Report. I’m not sure if it will be changed after further public comment.)
“B. Recommend denial with specific reasons and findings stated.
“C. Continue with specific directions to staff and/or applicants.”
That “additional review” seems to be very important to this project, as most of the questions and comments from citizens related to lack of detail in a number of areas. These areas include impacts to wildlife, especially birds; specifics on wetlands; specifics on jobs and training; mitigation of glare and visual impacts; effects of wind and low temperatures on functioning of Stirling engines and SunCatchers. Other citizens asked about the method of creating the hydrogen and what caustic fluids would be left over. The courtroom erupted in laughter when references were made to confining blowing dust to within the boundaries of the property, a requirement of state law.
Noise, of course, is a huge concern ( see article this page), and it did not appear that either of the studies done consider the cumulative impact of noise from all sources, including the sub-station which is scheduled to be sited very close to the corner of T Road and Co. Rd. 55, right across from a residence.
Kathryn Van Note, who was commissioned to write solar regulations for the County in 2009, asked why these were not being used to evaluate this project rather than the 1041 Regulations, a much more generic set of regulations that counties can use to evaluate large projects. Commissioner Linda Joseph replied that the County is using both—the 1041s and the Solar Guidelines, as they are now called. It did not seem, however, that either Tessera or their representative, Ecosphere Environmental Services, was very familiar with these guidelines.
On more than one occasion, Richard Knox replied to requests for more information by saying that details would be forthcoming once the application was approved. This lack of detail seems to be the greatest block to truly understanding the scope and impacts of this proposed project. The Land Use Department has made some effort to address some of these unanswered questions in the “Suggested Conditions” under Alternative A in the document listed above. However, it is far from comprehensive.
At one point, after many citizens had gone home for the evening, the Board asked to take comments from anyone supporting the project. Bill McClure said that many Center residents support it because it promises jobs. He also said that the assumption that it would provide lots of tax revenue should be investigated. McClure, a former County Commissioner and CPA, said the TABOR Amendment may mean that the County will have to return most of the increased tax revenue they collect to taxpayers. This could be a boon to taxpayers, but not to County government. Commissioner Pace replied that Tessera would be taxed on how much energy is produced. The question of revenue to the County is another area that does not seem to be well addressed, as there might be expenses to the County that will not be funded until the project is up and running and providing revenue.
The most insightful comment, in my opinion, was presented by longtime county resident, Greg Terrell, who spoke of pivotal points in history. He said the first major change to the Valley took place when European settlers introduced agriculture to the area. The second major change could come with the introduction of major industry in the form of large scale Concentrated Solar, which has the potential to change the nature of the Valley from an agricultural to an industrial landscape, and he asked the Commissioners to make a wise choice—whether they would take the corporate route or a more sustainable path.
When the meeting was adjourned at 8:20pm, many people had still not had a chance to make comments. The Board agreed to extend the deadline for written comments and schedule another opportunity for public comment.
In the meantime, however, the Commissioners have been contacted by their consultant, Nancy Lauro, with news that Richard Knox, Tessera’s Valley representative, has taken a position with another company. Articles in other news media indicate that Tessera has laid off over 50% of their national staff, leading to rumors that they may be restructuring. The Tessera representatives indicated to Lauro, however, that they plan to move forward with the project, and Knox will continue with them, at least long enough to wrap up any loose ends.
Please check the county’s website for public comment and hearing dates and updates at www.saguachecounty.net.
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