Solar park with 1.5 megawatts proposed near high school

Land along the San Benito River bed my be used for a new solar park near the current paintball business.

Developers for Megawatt Energy have submitted a preliminary
application to build a solar energy facility just outside of the
Hollister city limits, near Union and Cienega roads. The proposed
project site is at 2120 Cienega Road and would be built on three
separate, but contiguous land parcels, according to the application
submitted in February.
Developers for Megawatt Energy have submitted a preliminary application to build a solar energy facility just outside of the Hollister city limits, near Union and Cienega roads.

The proposed project site is at 2120 Cienega Road and would be built on three separate, but contiguous land parcels, according to the application submitted in February. The developers are proposing to construct and operate a 1.5-megawatt solar photovoltaic energy generating facility. The 32.1 acres is proposed to have 7,560 photovoltaic solar modules on 252 mechanical supports that track the sun. Each tracker will be equipped with 30 PV modules.

Part of the property now houses residential structures as well as a paintball facility that would continue to operate. The property owners have also talked about building a water park and said the solar panel project would not eliminate that possibility.

“They submitted their official application and gone through their review – required under state law,” said Michael Krausie, an associate planner with San Benito County. “They were given a list of items we would need to continue processing the application.”

Krausie said the applicants have been going through early consultation with agencies in the county, such as the city of Hollister, the county public works department and others, as well as U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the state Department of Fish and Game.

The initial application included a report by a biological consultant, Ed Mercurio, of Salinas. Based on a visual inspection on the proposed project site and surrounding area, on foot, Mercurio said there were no environmental concerns.

“Most of the San Benito Smart Park property is highly disturbed, rural, non-native grassland habitat,” Mercurio, wrote in his report. “The disking of the land three times a year for weed control is a major contributing factor to its disturbed state.”

Mercurio noted that the project would be set well away from the riparian habitat of the San Benito river bed, which runs along the edge of the property.

Krausie said the applicants needed to provide more information to U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the Department of Fish and Game.

“They have the information that those two agencies have provided for potential reports to be prepared for review,” Krausie said. “Those will all go into the environmental report. The next step is to submit all the needed information and we will issue a letter of complete on the application to begin the required work.”

The next step would be the California Environmental Quality Act, which requires developers to show how they would mitigate any negative impacts to the environment. After that, the report would go to a 30-day public comment period. The final step would be to go before the county planning commissioners for approval.

The applicants initially described a timeline of beginning construction in June.

“It has changed,” Krausie said. “It really depends on what happens. It’s two sided. The applicant needs to be responsive, which they have been, and two, the agency and comment public period need to be taken into consideration.”

During the preliminary stages of the application process, the developers have presented to some local agencies such as the city of Hollister and the county’s parks and recreation commission.

Whitney Bibbins, who declined to comment on the project for the story, and Steve Rumbaugh spoke openly about the project at a May 17 parks and recreation commissioners’ meeting.

“We’ve been in entitlement for about 90 days or so,” Bibbins said at the meeting. “We’ve had comments from fire and forestry and comments from the city. Prior to coming here, we already had an idea you folks had plans for a river parkway.”

Much of the discussion at the parks and recreation commission meeting involved how the project might impact the county’s proposal to build a river parkway that would stretch from San Juan Bautista to the San Benito County Historical Park, in Tres Pinos. The three properties on which the project is proposed abut the river.

“The idea is to set it 50 feet away from the actual property line, parallel to the tree line of a normal riverbank,” said Rumbaugh, one of the developers. “We are open to the idea of having potential walks or trails.”

Rumbaugh did stress that the facility itself will be fenced in so there will not be access to the public through it.

Commissioners Jim West and Don Kelley responded positively to the idea of a permanent conservation easement.

“I think it’s wonderful,” West said. “We wanted to build a parkway along the river. This will go as a permanent conservation easement. It sets precedent to give us space.”

Rumbaugh was clear to note that any permanent easement would need to be worked out legally. Rumbaugh also stressed that the developers would not help the city or county with the creation of the trails, but would only offer access to the land.

Student representative Jesse Vallejo, of San Benito High School, expressed concern that the fence around the project would detract from the scenery.

“People said they wanted to get out in nature and I don’t think they want to see solar panels,” Vallejo said.

Rumbaugh commented that it would be better for people to be walking on the trails near a solar park rather than using gas or oil energy sources that negatively impact animals.

West and other commissioners suggested using native plants along the fence line to conceal it.

Kelley asked if the energy created by the park would benefit the parks system or other local areas.

See the full story in the Pinnacle on Friday.

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