Lawsuit says solar power projects should avoid prime farmland

Nov 18, 2011
by WLJ

In an action aimed at conserving prime farmland and protecting the integrity of California’s main farmlandconservation program, the California Farm Bureau Federation (Farm Bureau) filed a lawsuit that charges the Fresno County Board of Supervisors with overstepping its authority when it authorized construction of a utility-scale solar power project on prime farmland.

In early October, county supervisors voted to cancel a Williamson Act farmlandconservation contract on 90 acres of prime Class I soil to allow the parcel to be developed for a large solar power plant. Farm Bureau said the Williamson Act requires that a proposed contract cancellation meet rigorous findings. For example, to find that a cancellation is in the public interest, the benefits of the proposed project must substantially outweigh the objectives of the farmlandprotection program, and there cannot be other, unprotected land available for the same use.

In its lawsuit, Farm Bureau said Fresno County supervisors “have completely and repeatedly ignored the unanimous recommendations and advice” from state agencies, local advisory committees and its own staff, that the request for cancellation did not meet the requirements, and that the Williamson Act contract should not be cancelled.

Williamson Act contracts include an agreement from landowners to maintain their property in agricultural use for 10 years. In return, landowners receive a property tax assessment based on the agricultural value of the property rather than on its development value.

California Farm Bureau President Paul Wenger said the organization filed suit to assure that large-scale solar power facilities are located in appropriate places.

“Farmers recognize the potential of solar power,” Wenger said, “and California farmers lead the nation in the installation of on-farm solar power generators. But pressure to build utilityscale solar plants has touched off a land rush that threatens thousands of acres of prime farmland. There are millions of acres of marginal land in California. That’s where these power plants should go, so we can conserve prime farmland to grow the crops that sustain our state and nation.”

The suit, filed in Fresno County Superior Court, aims to halt cancellation of the Williamson Act contract and to require the county to comply with the act in any further cancellation requests.

The California Department of Conservation sent a letter to the board of supervisors requesting the cancellation of the Williamson Act contract in October, claiming “the project proponent has failed to establish that the state’s interest in developing renewable resources on the subject property ‘substantially outweighs’ the variety of interests served by the preservation of the maximum amount of the limited supply of agricultural land.”

The supervisors ignored the recommendations of county staff, its own Agricultural Land Conservation Committee, the Department of Conservation and the Farm Bureau by voting to approve the solar project.

The 90-acre parcel is located within the Westlands Water District and has been covered by the Williamson Act since 1969. The land has been continuously farmed in recent years, primarily for the production of honeydew melons, lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, onions and an almond orchard. — WLJ