Monday, November 28, 2011

Farmville (Part VII): The golden state experiences a new gold rush

This weekend my dad received an offer to lease some of our ranches. The offer was atypical because the lessee will not use the land for farming. Instead, the lessee wants to remove the trees and plant solar panels, turning the ranch into a solar farm. Many farmers in California are given similar offers to convert or lease their land for solar farms. The State of California needs an estimated 100,000 acres of solar arrays employing modern technology to meet its mandate requiring one third of its energy be renewable by 2020. This coupled with tax breaks and stimulus dollars for solar panels has caused the State of California to experience a "Solar Gold Rush".

In Fresno County, the country's most agricultural county, there are thirty-two proposals for solar powered generation facilities. One of the proposals concerns Williamson Act land. Another post on the Williamson Act can be found here. The Williamson Act lowers tax assessments for farmers who contract with the county to use their land for agriculture for ten years. A large quantity of California farmland is governed by the Williamson Act. The state reimburses counties for this program. However, due to the budget crisis, the state has failed to pay, which has forced counties to make up the difference. Consequently, county planners and supervisors favor land for solar farming rather than agricultural farming purposes under the Williamson Act. In August, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors voted to cancel land under the Williamson Act to make way for a 90-acre solar project. Although favorable to the county budget, this cancellation has not been warmly embraced by farmers.

The California Farm Bureau Federation (CFBF) is suing the board of supervisors. CFBF alleges that the board overstepped its authority when it determined that nixing the Williamson Act contract in favor of the utility scale solar project was in the public's interest. The CFBF is now in a precarious situation, arguing for farm conservation over private property rights. CFBF lawyer, Chris Scheuring commented,
"Every farmer's got to make his own decision about what to do which his property. We're not here to stand in the way of any farmer taking advantage of the opportunities his property affords him. But in this case...the landowner voluntarily promised to keep his land in agricultural production for 10 years and wants to break that promise now. Just because the developer is waving cash at him and the county, we don't think that's the way Williamson Act was meant to be administered."

As in Fresno County, Kern County planners are also flooded with solar facilities requests. Of the requested 17,000 acres, a potential 9,000 acres are considered prime farmland - or nutrient rich soil. Local farmers are upset that such a substantial amount of farmland is going out of production, especially since crops need this nutrient rich soil, whereas solar farms can exist in areas unsuitable for crops.

A joint policy paper released by UCLA and UC Berkeley law schools argues that the balancing of farmland preservation and sustainable energy production must be a top priority for our State's future. The paper suggests that the two can co-exist by building the solar farms on marginal farmland or areas with limited water.

The Fresno case was recently filed. It will be interesting to see whether this case sets a precedent for future solar initiatives in the Central Valley, particularly in light of Fresno's large agricultural sector and its increase in green initiatives.

2 comments:

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