Ag Today September 15, 2016

Monterey County makes way for solar panels on farmland.

By Ana Ceballos- Monterey County Weekly

In the Salinas Valley, rows of crops stretch for miles, undisturbed. Here, in the Salad Bowl of the World, county officials are fiercely protective of keeping farmland in farming, but that could change as renewable energy gets more popular.

County officials began deliberating over questions about solar panels on farmland when D’Arrigo Bros. applied last year for a permit to install 15 acres of solar panels on a 284-acre parcel. Without guidelines instructing them otherwise, the county Planning Department granted the permit, but also began to plan ahead, anticipating similar requests as California encourages renewable energy systems.

County planners asked the Agricultural Advisory Committee for direction in January, and the committee held off on issuing any recommendations, instead creating a subcommittee to grapple with questions about using prime farmland for energy projects. At the time, Monterey County Farm Bureau Executive Director Norm Groot expressed hesitation on behalf of his board members: “We need to be careful here,” Groot said at the Jan. 28 meeting. “This is a really slippery slope. We need to be careful we don’t start willy-nilly converting prime ag land.”

Groot became a member of the subcommittee, which met Sept. 12 to review the draft ordinance, the first step in a long public process. Committee members discussed the impact that small-scale solar projects could have on agriculture.

The current draft ordinance – which will establish rules not just for agricultural lands, but all types of solar projects – would allow for solar projects affixed to the ground on prime farmland as long as these take up no more than 5 percent of the parcel’s square footage – a cap that could prove challenging for small wineries. The subcommittee recommended not to impose such a cap, as long as there are other restrictions in place. Ground-mounted panels (unlike rooftop) would have to go through a permitting process.

Monterey County Associate Planner Nadia Amador, who is helping spearhead the ordinance, wrote in a memo that there are still “holes that need to be addressed in regards to agricultural impacts.”

The next step is to vet the ordinance with different stakeholder groups and the public. After making revisions, county planners will send the ordinance to the county Planning Commission for a public workshop, which could take months.

“It probably won’t be adopted this year,” Amador says. “Best-case scenario, it will be adopted early next year.”