29 March 2024

San Juan County Department of Community Development
Attn. Marc Santos
135 Rhone Street
Friday Harbor, WA 98250

Re: LANDUSE-23-0122: Bailer Hill Microgrid Project

Dear Planning Department and Hearing Examiner,

I am writing to express my profound dismay that the County would consider allowing a vast solar array project on 19.27 acres located at the corner of Douglas and Bailer Hill roads within the San Juan Valley Heritage Plan Overlay District. This proposal is wholly inconsistent with years of citizen driven efforts to protect the historic Valley agricultural resource lands, open space, pastoral landscapes, and significant view corridors.

In the documents submitted by the Applicant the years of planning work to protect open space resources in San Juan Valley are summarily dismissed with the claim that the San Juan Valley Heritage Plan does not apply since the proposal is not a land division. I can assure you that while the Heritage Plan references land divisions as the target development activity it is only because solar farms were never envisioned as a land use that would be compatible with the sensitive open space values that islanders sought to protect in the Valley and that still exist today.

As the Senior Planner working on developing the new San Juan County Comprehensive Plan under the Growth Management Act in the early 90s, and then as an elected member of the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) from 1997-2004, I was directly involved in the long history of planning and working with land owners with regards to the San Juan Valley heritage area. Below is a recap of the community-based planning efforts over the past 45 years.

  • In 1979 the County adopted its first Comprehensive Plan. In this initial planning effort care was taken to designate San Juan Valley, with its prime agricultural soils and long history of farming, as Agricultural land.
  • In 1990 the County opted to plan under the Growth Management Act and began an intensive multi-year citizen-engaged planning process.
  • In the spring of 1990, with a matching grant from the San Juan Preservation Trust, the County initiated an open space and conservation planning process, with the goal “…to develop a plan to identify and protect those open spaces, vistas, and view corridors that substantially contribute to the sense of “ruralness” that now prevails in most of the County.” The resulting remarkable citizen-driven extensively detailed 1991 Open Space and Conservation Plan (OSCP) developed a rating system for landscape units throughout the islands. In the OSCP the San Juan Valley landscape unit was rated the most important on San Juan Island after the American Camp Historical Park unit. Based on the OSCP, the open space value present in this landscape unit results from a combination of pastoral landscapes, agricultural resources, water and mountain views, rural development patterns, and visual accessibility.
  • In 1991 the OSCP was further incorporated by Resolution 54-2001 into the 1998 adopted Comprehensive Plan developed under the auspices of the Growth Management Act. The OSCP is still in place today even through many subsequent updates to the Comprehensive Plan.
  • In 2001 a steering committee of Valley property owners, planning commissioners, and representatives of the San Juan Preservation Trust, Friends of the San Juans, and the San Juan County Land Bank was appointed by the BOCC to work with county staff and consultants to further implement the OSCP by developing a plan for San Juan Valley that "will recognize and protect visual open space resources as equal in importance to maintaining traditional agricultural uses in this location." Further, the Heritage Plan should "allow for land division and development at a variety of densities as an incentive to maximize conservation and protection of open spaces and to maximize the potential of continuing agricultural uses in this location...” This work resulted in the adoption of the San Juan Valley Heritage Plan Overlay District by Resolution 2-2002 for inclusion in the Unified Development Code (UDC). I can say with certainty that the land owners, engaged citizens, and elected officials at that time never anticipated the prospect of vast solar arrays blanketing and darkening agricultural lands in San Juan Valley or any of the significant agricultural areas in the islands. Such uses would not have been allowed by the UDC in agricultural resource lands because they clearly do not meet the intent and purpose of the Comprehensive Plan.

In subsequent Comprehensive Plan updates and amendments, the vision, goals and policies to conserve open space and scenic vistas remain integral to the Plan as illustrated in several sections:

In Section A. Comprehensive Plan Vision 2036:
Natural Environment. - “Our islands and marine waters have exceptional natural beauty and healthy, diverse ecosystems that are pollution-free. The air is fresh and clean, the water quality is excellent, and the soil is uncontaminated. As careful stewards of these islands and waters, we conserve resources, preserve open space, and take appropriate action to assure healthy land and marine environments. We recognize the integral role that forests play in the stewardship of our air, soils and water resources. The natural environment is central to the ecological health, quality of life, and the economy in the islands. Native plants, animals, and marine life of the islands thrive, and are identified, appreciated and conserved.”
Agriculture – “The San Juan Islands have a rich agricultural heritage that remains culturally and economically significant. We invest resources to ensure that agricultural lands are preserved and to maintain and enhance agricultural viability. We recognize the integral role that agriculture plays in the stewardship of our soils and water resources. Diverse agricultural activities are essential to the health and well-being of our community, contributing to the social, economic and environmental fabric of our islands.”

In Section B. Element 2 – Land Use and Rural
Section 2.1 Introduction
Central to the GMA planning framework are three primary land use categories: urban, natural resource, and rural lands…. Under the GMA, the County must designate natural resource lands with long-term commercial significance for the production of agricultural, timber, and mineral resources. Natural resource lands must be preserved from incompatible land uses to ensure that they remain available for resource industries.”

2.2.A General Goal and Policies

Goal: “To provide for the orderly use of San Juan County land, shorelines and water areas and to respect, protect and maintain the natural beauty and land and marine resources of the islands, maintain the rural, residential, agricultural atmosphere, and to regulate development in a manner which will protect the rights of private landowners and interests of the public.”

2.2.I Open Space and Scenic Resources
Goal: “To protect and conserve open space and scenic resources.”
1 Policy: Protect open space and scenic resources identified in the County’s Open Space and Conservation Plan through implementation of a variety of conservation techniques including fee acquisition, conservation easements, incentives, overlay districts, purchase, retirement, or transfer of development rights, and educational programs.

2.2.N Agriculture
Goal: Protect agricultural land and promote diverse agricultural activities that enhance stewardship and economic viability, and maintain the rural character of San Juan County.
Policies: There are 15 policies here to protect farmland and encourage productivity and no net loss.

2.4 Resource Lands
Goal: “To recognize and protect the physical conditions and characteristics of agricultural and forest resource lands, including social and environmental benefits, which are conducive to the use of such lands for long-term commercial production.”
Among 6 Policies: Policy 5 - Continue to apply the Open Space Conservation Overlay District regulations to Agricultural Resource Lands located within the San Juan Valley.

2.4.a Agriculture Resource Lands
Goal: “To ensure the conservation of agricultural resource lands of long-term commercial significance for existing and future generations, and protect these lands from interference by adjacent uses which may affect the continued use of these lands for production of food and agricultural products.”
8 Policies: Policy 5 - Limit the location of new roads and road realignments, access routes and other non-agricultural public and private facilities, to the least disruptive locations within agricultural areas.

2.6. Overlay Districts: “…Except as otherwise provided in this Section, the provisions of an Overlay District shall prevail over any conflicting provisions of this Plan…All other provisions of this Plan shall retain full effect within the Overlay District…”
2.6.B Open Space Conservation
Goal: “To protect those significant open spaces and vistas which substantially contribute to the rural character of the County.”
Policies: 1. Identify open space resources of high and very high conservation priority and establish an Open Space Conservation Overlay District for these areas. High and Very High conservation priority areas are preliminarily identified on maps in the Open Space and Conservation Plan. Consider applying the Open Space Conservation District Overlay to those lands that are within landscape units which are rated in the Open Space and Conservation Plan and which have a score of 35 and above. Seek opportunities to work with property owners to prepare conservation plans for development in these areas upon designation of an Open Space Conservation Overlay District.
2. Develop Site planning standards for Open Space Conservation Overlay District areas specific to the type of open space resource and its particular sensitivity to land alteration.

While the UDC identifies “commercial power-generation facilities” as a conditional use in Agricultural Lands, vast solar array facilities were never envisioned in agricultural resource lands and especially in an area rated so highly for its open space and scenic resources. Therefore, the microgrid use is not consistent with the intent and purposes of the Comprehensive Plan from which the UDC is derived. With regards to the specific provisions in the UDC that are applicable to this proposal, my comments are in bold italics below:

UDC Section 18.30.070 Rural, Resource, and Special Lands – Special provisions
A. Agricultural and Forest Resource Lands. On all agricultural or forest resource lands (AG and FOR), the maximum area of development which is not related to agricultural or forestry uses and activities shall be limited to 20 percent of the parcel area, but not less than one acre, regardless of the assigned density. Further, in the division of a parcel by any means, the allowable area for conversion of the parent parcel to nonfarm and/or non-forestry use shall not be exceeded. This shall not apply to parcels smaller than five acres. The area taken up by over 5000 solar panels and metal container cabinets housing the battery energy storage systems (BESS) is far in excess of the 20% limitation requirement for development on Agricultural Resource Lands. Even if sheep can graze under the panels, the intent and purpose of this section is clearly to leave most of the land in an open and unbuilt state to protect the soils for agricultural production as well as to preserve the pastoral landscapes and view corridors.

UDC 18.80.100 Permit procedures for conditional use and variance permits.
D. Conditional Use Permits – Criteria for Approval. A conditional use permit shall be granted by the County only if the following criteria are met:

1. The proposed use will not be contrary to the intent or purposes and regulations of this code or the Comprehensive Plan; The proposed microgrid project does not meet the intent and purposes of the Comprehensive Plan as it is contrary to the vision, goals and policies to protect agricultural resource lands and to preserve open space and scenic resources as specifically defined in the Open Space and Conservation Plan for San Juan Valley. The Valley is highly rated because “the open space values present in these landscape units result from a combination of pastoral landscapes, agricultural resources, water and mountain views, rural development patterns, and visual accessibility.”

2. The proposal is appropriate in design, character and appearance with the goals and policies for the land use designation in which the proposed use is located; The microgrid proposal is wholly inappropriate in design, character and appearance for the Agricultural lands and Open Space Overlay designation in which it is proposed. The vast grid of solar panels spread across the property along with the BESS containers near the roadway is not consistent with the landscape unit values identified in the OSCP for San Juan Valley or the open space requirements for Agricultural lands.

3. The proposed use will not cause significant adverse impacts on the human or natural environments that cannot be mitigated by conditions of approval; The microgrid proposal will cause significant visual impacts on the human and natural environments that the Open Space and Conservation Plan sought to protect in San Juan Valley including the pastoral and water/mountain view landscapes highly prized by islanders. As well, the site is located along a main corridor of the San Juan Island Scenic Byway designated by the State in 2009 to recognize a travelway with unique scenic, natural, archaeological, historical, cultural, and recreational qualities.

4. The cumulative impact of additional requests for like actions (the total of the conditional uses over time or space) will not produce significant adverse effects to the environment that cannot be mitigated by conditions of approval; Given that most of the Valley is currently wide-open space with good southern exposure, if this microgrid proposal is approved it will set precedent for any number of new requests for solar array projects in San Juan Valley. These developments will have cumulative significant adverse impacts to the unbuilt environment that cannot be mitigated by conditions of approval given the very nature of the Valley that is protected by the Open Space and Conservation Plan as part of the Comprehensive Plan.

5. The proposal will be served by adequate facilities including access, fire protection, water, stormwater control, and sewage disposal facilities; The proposal includes 44,317 sq.ft. of impervious surface areas – this will impact natural stormwater flows with the potential to impact the creek that flows through the Valley to False Bay – a University of Washington Biological Preserve. As well, electrical equipment always has the potential for inadvertent fire and a wildfire would have catastrophic consequences for the island.

6. The location, size, and height of buildings, structures, walls and fences, and screening vegetation associated with the proposed use shall not unreasonably interfere with allowable development or use of neighboring properties; Allowable development in the Valley has typically been in the form of traditional farming and farm structures with some limited rural residential development subject to design requirements for preserving open space. The proposed microgrid development interferes with the open space and visual corridors of neighboring farm and residential development and adding vegetation to buffer the glare and visual impacts of such a development is contrary to maintaining the Valley view corridors. As the proposed project site is adjacent to a State Scenic Byway it will interfere with public views from the road out over the pastoral landscape of the Valley.

7. The pedestrian and vehicular traffic associated with the conditional use will not be hazardous to existing and anticipated traffic in the neighborhood; However, the glare from thousands of solar panels will have visual impacts on vehicular, bicycle, and pedestrian traffic traveling through the area.

8. The proposal complies with the performance standards set forth in Chapter 18.40.
SJCC; 18.40.430 Utility distribution and transmission lines and substations
A. New utility distribution lines shall be placed underground wherever reasonable and practicable. Undergrounding of existing lines in the course of routine maintenance and replacement is encouraged where practicable, particularly where such undergrounding would enhance recognized scenic and open space areas and resources. While this section refers to utility lines, the language about “recognized scenic and open space areas and resources” is a direct reference to protecting scenic resources from intrusion by these types of utility facilities.

9. The proposal does not include any use or activity that would result in the siting of an incompatible use adjacent to an airport or airfield (RCW 36.70.547); and
While the proposal is not adjacent to the Friday Harbor airport it is within the flight pattern of planes accessing the airport, glare impact on airplanes is highly likely.

10. The proposal conforms to the development standards in Chapter 18.60 SJCC.
With regards to UDC 18.60.050 Density, dimension and opens space standards.
D. Open Space. Open space must be maintained in its natural condition, in agricultural or forestry use, or landscaped according to SJCC 18.60.160. The sensitive open space features that have been identified for San Juan Valley would not be maintained in their natural condition or in traditional agricultural use with this proposed vast solar array spread across nearly the whole site and no amount of landscaping could remedy this.

UDC section 18.60.150 - E. Utility lines within agricultural resource lands shall be designed and located to minimize disruption of existing and potential agricultural uses. (Ord. 2-1998 Exh. B § 6.13) Again, the code here is intended to protect agricultural lands of long-term commercial significance from development that compromises its long-term viability for production of farm products.

The microgrid proposal clearly does not meet the criteria for approval of a conditional use permit as it does not comply with the intent and purpose of the vision, goals and policies of the Comprehensive Plan with regards to agricultural resource lands and open space as specifically described in the OSCP for San Juan Valley, and further implemented through the UDC. The proposal does not recognize and protect significant visual open space resources or maintain traditional agricultural uses and would permanently alter the landscape values of San Juan Valley by increasing the built, human environment within an area that is the largest expanse of designated relatively undeveloped natural resource land on San Juan Island. The burden of proof is on the Applicant to fully comprehend and demonstrate compliance with all the goals, policies and provisions of the Plan and UDC – they clearly have not.

I fully support OPALCOs microgrid efforts, but placing a solar array of this magnitude on undeveloped agricultural land in a recognized significant sensitive protected open space view corridor is absolutely unnecessary when there are already built out and/or development impacted areas that could be used to site solar microgrids through innovative collaborative efforts with public agencies and other land holders.

Thank you for your attention to these important land use and development matters.

Darcie L Nielsen