Washington County must sign off on the development. Staff have recommended it be approved.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Solar panels sit atop of Sexton Mountain in Beaverton. A similar array is proposed near Verboort.A proposed 12-acre solar farm near Verboort could receive official approval from Washington County by early December.

County planning staff have recommended that a hearings officer, who was appointed to decide the matter, sign off on the plans by Portland-based Sulus Solar to build a solar array on the property of J.D. and Nicole M. Kemper, just off Northwest Marsh Road. The solar farm would feed into Portland General Electric's power distribution system, according to Conor Grogan, Sulus Solar's co-founder.

"It will supply electricity for approximately 350 homes," Grogan told David Doughman, the county's appointed hearings officer, at a public hearing last month.

Opponents of the proposal argue that it is inappropriate to convert "high-value" farmland for electricity generation.

Solar power is widely considered to be among the cleanest, safest ways to generate electricity, with very little noise impact, few to no emissions, scant risk of soil or water contamination, relatively little impact on wildlife, and no potential for a catastrophic failure. However, the major drawback is that solar arrays take up a lot of space for the amount of power they generate. That means solar operators look to develop on large tracts of empty, relatively flat land — the type of land that is often suitable for farming.

The Kempers lease out parts of their property for farm use, something J.D. Kemper said will continue if the solar farm is built.

"I would hope that my neighbors would appreciate the revised location and landscaping plan brought about as a result of their concerns," said Kemper, noting that where the solar farm on his property is planned to be built has changed since a "neighborhood meeting" earlier this year.

He added, "In addition to minimizing visual impact, the location was chosen with farming in mind. The installation of the project still leaves the rest of my property very easily farmable, and I have no intentions on stopping that production in the future. Also, I have consulted the neighboring farmers, and needless to say, they intend to continue farming without change as well."

State law restricts the size of solar farms on farmland considered to be of high value to 12 acres. The proposed Verboort-area solar farm is the maximum allowable size. One of the recommended conditions of approval calls for the property-owner to remove the solar farm within six months if it stops generating power at any time in the future, and restore the land it occupies to farm use.

Although county staff have concluded that the Solus Solar project meets all of the relevant criteria for approval, not all of the Kempers' neighbors are happy about the proposal.

"Not only am I concerned about the property value of my own house," wrote Gerritt Schmidlkofer, who lives on Marsh Road, in an email to the county last month, "but I have also been in (agriculture) my entire life and seeing such a large piece of farm land being taken for use by something that can be placed anywhere, soil not a dependent factor, seems like such a waste."

Sheila Van Grunsven, another Marsh Road resident, wrote that it appeared to her that the county and Solus Solar tried to "hide" information about the project.

"Limited information on this project has been hidden and not (made) readily available to the major public," Van Grunsven wrote in a letter last month. She noted that the case file number originally posted on the property did not direct to the right project on Washington County's website and the application did not appear to be accepting public comment during the open comment period.

Genny Bond, the senior county planner handling the application, acknowledged multiple errors that county staff made in providing public notice for it at last month's public hearing. Ultimately, the errors were corrected and the county complied with public notice requirements, she added.

Doughman's decision is expected within the couple of weeks or so, according to Bond.

"I am confident that once that project is in and generating, that it will blend into the landscape and not cause upset while helping ensure this family farm can be passed to the next generation," J.D. Kemper told Doughman at the hearing.

Some of the application's opponents have asked that Washington County consider a moratorium on allowing new solar arrays on high-value farmland. However, Bond wrote in her response to one, even if such a moratorium were adopted, it would not block the Solus Solar project.

"You can't change the rules mid-stream," Bond wrote, "it's not legal."

This is the fourth proposed solar farm that has come up for review in Washington County, according to Bond. The three previous applications were approved with fewer conditions than staff have recommended in this case, she pointed out.

By Mark Miller
Editor, Forest Grove News-Times
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