Mesa County Commissioners ignoring safety concerns & quietly working to tweak land use code to advantage large scale solar development, citizens say

Commercial solar development on east Orchard Mesa (Photo: High Noon Solar)

On January 9, Mesa County Commissioners Janet Rowland, Cody Davis and Bobbie Daniel voted to put a moratorium on large-scale solar development in the County supposedly to take time to address the community’s growing concerns over these developments. Citizens are worried that the current county Land Development Code (LDC) contains no provisions protecting agricultural and irrigated land, wildlife, water sheds and view sheds from these developments, as well as no requirements for fire protection, buffers, setbacks or plans to decommission these installations that will assure solar plants that get destroyed by inclement weather or live out their expected life spans are cleaned up in a way that minimizes  environmental harm and expense to local taxpayers.

Concerned Citizens of Mesa County have been watching the Commissioners’ activities on these issues and are sounding an alarm on what they’ve seen.

They are calling out the Commissioners for evading the exact issues residents brought to them about these developments, and say the commissioners have been trying to quietly tweak the land development code (LDC) to advantage solar developers by putting fewer restrictions on them, instead of putting in place rules designed to protect citizens.

On March 29, Concerned Citizens sent the following communication out to the public, press and elected officials about what they have seen the Commissioners doing on this issue. It has been lightly edited for clarity and conciseness.

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Dear Mesa County Citizens, Members of the Press, Mesa County Board of Commissioners, Policy Makers and Business Owners,

Even those of us who are pro-solar recognize the fire danger, the impact on the environment, and the need for common-sense regulations on large-scale industrial solar.

We, Concerned Citizens of Mesa County, state for the record that those in charge of the political processes regarding commercial solar development and the risks they pose to the Grand Valley have not been transparent to the community who are directly affected, nor have they prioritized the safety of citizens across the county.

The Mesa County Planning Department has worked closely with Solar representatives and citizens during many public forums to create a draft amendment to the Land Development Code (LDC) to regulate solar development.

During these public meetings, the Commissioners did not consult experts of any kind outside of the solar developers themselves. Despite this obvious oversight, the Planning Department developed a new Code.

Solar panels damaged by large hail (Photo: Reddit)

The drafted code that went before the Planning Commission on March 21 did not address the concerns of the community.

The Planning Commission suggested that several areas of the amendment to the Land Development Code (LDC) be changed to address the community’s concerns. Many of these concerns were also expressed by Concerned Citizens in the community letter sent to the Board of County Commissioners (BoCC), and others on March 12. That letter is in the public record.

A briefing was held on March 25 with the BoCC to look at the drafted LDC amendment and review the Planning Commission’s suggestions. For reasons unknown, this meeting was not recorded and no minutes taken.

After the BoCC briefing, the Planning Department actually changed a key protection that had been previously written into the LDC amendment and ignored other serious concerns: 

1)   The BoCC decided not to address the loophole existing in fire protection for the high-voltage electrical facilities. This means the  Commissioners decided that any large-scale solar utility developed on parcels outside of an incorporated fire protection district need not be held to the International Fire Code standards regarding general fire safety.  Many acres of land in our county are not under the jurisdiction of an incorporated fire district. This means high-voltage electricity plants will be allowed to develop there without any fire regulation or oversight.

2)   Despite pleas from the community, reluctant acceptance from the Colorado Solar and Storage Association (COSSA) and urging from the BOCC’s own Planning Commission – the Commissioners decided to remove the bond requirement to ensure that decommissioning of commercial-scale solar facilities occurs in a safe and thorough manner. All language around bond requirements (in the 3/22 version of Section CC.2.h) were removed after the March 25 meeting with the BoCC. 

3)   A new and worrisome loophole was created in the LDC amendment after the March 25 BoCC meeting: The LDC amendment that went in front of the Planning Commission specified the difference between a “behind the meter” and an “in front of the meter” system. “Behind the meter” is defined as electricity produced primarily for the use of the residential/commercial/agricultural establishment where the development is located, and “in front of the meter” is defined as electricity produced to be sold for profit. Every person involved in creating the LDC amendment agreed that there should be few restrictions on “behind the meter” developments, as it is the right of the consumer to offset their electric costs with solar development.  We all agreed that restrictions should focus primarily on large utility-scale production of electricity to be sold into the “grid” solely for profit. 

Solar farm wind damage. Solar panels contain cadmium, defined by OSHA as “highly toxic metal known to cause cancer.” “Leaching from broken panels damaged during natural events — hail storms, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, etc. — and at decommissioning is a big concern,” says a representative of Concerned Citizens of Fawn Lake in Virginia, where a 6,350 acre solar farm to partly power Microsoft data centers is being proposed.

But the 3-member BoCC overruled that differentiation when it comes to any “agrivoltaic” system.  Result: if you can perform any type of agricultural production on your land, you can now also develop any size solar utility plant as your land will fit – even hundreds of acres. In addition, agrivoltaics are exempt from height restrictions.

The board also demanded the loosening of the definition of “agrivoltaics.” The original LDC amendment specified that there had to be agricultural production occurring on the land alongside the electrical production. After the Commissioners’ changes, “agrivoltaics” can now be defined by as little as having a cow in a field or a couple tomato plants alongside tens of thousands of solar panels. 

This decision undermines the entire agriculture industry of our valley.

How many farmers will allow their fields to stop producing in order to fill them with highly profitable (and zero-labor) electrical panels? This loophole is disastrous and must be addressed by returning the LDC language around “agrivoltaics” to its original form. That original language was carefully drafted by the input of many, only to be thrown out by three politically motivated commissioners.

Please write to our elected Commissioners and let them know that:

1) The community is aware of how they have undermined our agricultural heritage which will surely prove fatal to our unique economy, landscape and tourism industry; 

2) We demand the increased fire risks inherent in high-voltage electricity production be addressed for every development, not just those conveniently located within an incorporated fire district.

3) We demand that the board put back the decommissioning bond which ensures Mesa County is not left with junkyards of thousands of glass and aluminum panels across the county when the lifespan of these utility plants are over.

With the new LDC code as the Commissioners have made it, large-scale solar facilities will be allowed in every single land zone in Mesa County. This is non-negotiable and mandated by Governor Polis’ green energy legislation. Our Board of County Commissioners cannot dictate where solar is developed. They do, however, have the power to say how development can take place.

Join us in urging them to set aside their political aspirations and attend to the health and safety of our community as a whole.

Sincerely,

Concerned Citizens of Mesa County

  6 comments for “Mesa County Commissioners ignoring safety concerns & quietly working to tweak land use code to advantage large scale solar development, citizens say

  1. This pearl-clutching is so contrived. Here’s the real “Cui Bono” quote that tells you everything: “This decision undermines the entire agriculture industry of our valley.”

    Don’t take the bait here! This is entirely an astroturf activism campaign, subversively funded by the Ag industry to keep lands in their subsidized service, stifle concerted solar growth, and scare farmers from seeing other opportunties for their lands. Because last I checked and per all the studies/research, Agriculture is the real culprit of environmental/water pollution here. Classic special interest group approach to present themselves as “concerned citizens”, yet provide no names or credential of the folks the supposedly represent. Hmmm…I guess they’re either not real or concerned enough to be identified. Besides, their entire narrative is hysteric straw men scenarios and hypotheticals, which have no actual scientific evidence of environmental degradation nor proof beyond some cherry-picked photos of storm damage. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Bobbi is playing both sides of this issue, since she is the Ag/Oil/Gas shill on the commission and stifling things behind scenes would best serve all those interests. Consider the flip side of their claims of secrecy by the Crony Commissioners, whose actions I am all deeply skeptical of: maybe there are meeting records or notes because these shills do want to appear outwardly hostile to economic development and are slow-walking this whole process to buy time to gin up pseudo controversy to give them the reason to railroad these land use changes. These changes by the way, as currently proposed, are in line with other land use codes in Colorado. This is all right-wing paranoia wrapped in a neat little package to appeal to as wide of audience as possible. But of course, don’t take my word for it…use your critical thinking skills and look into this for yourself, esp before trusting the word/intent of a questionable broker of information.

  2. No one should be surprised! You aren’t are you? This is just a continuation of the same pageant!
    But, remember, everyone has the tool to reduce their anxiety and lower their blood pressure…
    It is called the ‘Mail In Ballot’ or ‘The Polling Booth’! You want change? Well there you are!

  3. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2023/may/21/solar-farms-energy-power-california-mojave-desert?CMP=share_btn_url

    As a follow up to what I knew about solar farms, I read this article (above link) in 2023 and became further distressed and astonished at the environmental damage caused by solar farms.
    This needs to be read by the BOCC and others promoting solar farms as a sustainable solution.
    One- no duh- concept presented in the article in that instead of wide expanses of unscathed virgin land , individual buildings and homes should be the parking place of solar panels!
    A get real moment.

    • I definitely think that rooftops solar should be mandated. But I think article is somewhat biased against solar farms. I find it difficult to believe that ancient petroglyphs sites are being bulldozed and that the desert bighorn is being badly affected. Neither of those are typically found on the flatter desert areas where solar farms are built. Maybe that’s just my perception from the article. I also know that all kinds of environmental and cultural surveys are done before projects are approved and anything important would be preserved. We also have to consider things like 2 million acres of forest land has been destroyed in Canadian tar sands areas.

  4. The BOCC has been dancing to their own music for many years now. Where is their interest? Certainly not focused on the well being of the citizens of Mesa county. From their devastation of the county Health department, to their behind the scenes orders to the code enforcement department, They have shown that following the law is not their concern. We need to vote them out, My dog can do a better job at taking care of the County, and its citizens.

  5. I guess I don’t understand the politics at play here. I am completely for putting up as many solar farms as possible. If I had the land and resources I would definitely be doing this. At the same point I understand that there is “some” hazard to having a large scale solar grid. I would think that taxpayes should not be held liable for the cleanup of a damaged solar farm. There should be some kind of arrangement for fire protection. Does the county need to put more rules in place? It sounds like it. Should there be a moritorium put on building until this works its way through the political process? I don’t think so.

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