Clackamas board splits 3-2 on issue of exception for high-value farmland; majority says need for renewable energy is key factor.

Oregon's largest solar farm west of the Cascades has won approval on a split vote by Clackamas County commissioners.

Pacific Northwest Solar LLC plans to put up 35,000 photovoltaic cells on 6-foot-high racks that will convert sunlight into 10 megawatts of power to the Portland General Electric substation in Estacada about two miles away.

The 70-acre site is north of Estacada on SE Duus Road near its intersection with SE Eagle Creek Road. It is about half a mile east of Highway 211. According to a county report, 90 percent of the site consists of high-value farm soils.

County commissioners had to decide whether to allow the solar farm through a specific exception to the statewide planning requirement to protect farmland.

"There are conflicting positive values around which we need to make a decision," said Commissioner Ken Humberston, who was part of the 3-2 majority for approval on Wednesday (Aug. 2).

Humberston said he was persuaded because the site has not been farmed actively for a couple of decades.

"The other issue is that the state and many of us have supported the idea of getting off coal-fired power plants," he said.

"We cannot say we want to be off of coal-fired power plants and other carbon-based fuels for power, then turn around and hamstring the very companies that are going to produce the alternative."

Steve Schmitt, who spoke for developer Pacific Northwest Solar LLC, said that it has a power contract with PGE, one of Oregon's two major private utilities. Under a 2016 state law, the utilities must phase out their out-of-state importation of coal-fired power by 2030.

Construction is scheduled to be completed by the late spring of 2018.

The 10 megawatts, Schmitt said, is enough for about 1,600 homes.

Humberston was joined by Commissioners Paul Savas and Martha Schrader.

Board Chairman Jim Bernard was one of two who voted against it. The other was Commissioner Sonya Fischer.

"Whether it is in use or not does not matter," said Bernard, who lives on high-value farmland outside Canby.

"As we reduce high-value farmland, eventually this may be an area that will be farmed. I assume since the soils are pretty good, I feel challenged on this one."

Bernard said either the state land-use agency or the watchdog group 1000 Friends of Oregon is likely to challenge the decision with the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals.

"Then it will be back to us to make another decision," he said.

Others on the way

County planning officials say several similar projects are in various stages, but many are smaller and are likely to require approval only by a hearings officer.

Projects require consideration by the county planning commission — which approved the Duus Road project on an 8-0 vote July 10 — and by county commissioners if they are proposed on high-value farmland sites exceeding 12 acres.

Exceptions to the statewide planning requirement for farmland protection require additional findings to justify the decisions.

"Each of these is unique and you have to analyze each site against all of the exceptions criteria," senior planner Martha Fritzie told county commissioners.

The only public testimony at the July 10 planning commission hearing was from the state land-use agency, officially the Department of Land Conservation and Development.

Tim Murphy, an agency specialist in farm and forest lands, did not say whether the agency would appeal the Aug. 2 decision.

But he told county commissioners that requests from solar farm developers are increasing.

"We have specifically designed our rules to try to encourage development away from those areas," Murphy said. "For example, on the least productive soils for agricultural use, you can site a facility on up to 320 acres without a goal exception. But we are seeing more and more exception applications.

"We are not convinced this is a temporary use."

Schrader said the proposed solar farm was a low-impact use.

"If we do not allow these facilities to be sited … we're not going to be able to meet our energy goals," she said.

In addition to a 2030 deadline to phase out importation of coal-fired power, Oregon's utilities must obtain half their power from renewable sources by 2040.

Savas said the vote came on a day when Portland temperatures broke 100 degrees.

"This infrastructure is a necessity, and especially today for people running their air conditioners, it's incredibly important," he said. "But this is not an attractive use of the land, I will say that."

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Other projects

Although the Duus Road project near Estacada is not the first solar array, it would be the largest so far in the Portland metropolitan area, according to a list of projects compiled by Renewable Northwest Project.

Most of Oregon's large projects are east of the Cascades or in Southern Oregon, where sunshine is more consistent.

Cypress Creek Renewables, based in Santa Monica, Calif., has approvals for three 2,200-kilowatt projects north of Colton, northwest of Eagle Creek and west of Boring.

Gladstone High School, Gladstone Center for Children and Families, and Kraxberger Middle School in Gladstone have solar power projects (95-100 kilowatts each) that became operational in 2011.

A 1,750-kilowatt project has been operating since 2012 at the Baldock rest area on Interstate 5 south of Wilsonville. A 3,000-kilowatt project in West Linn, also highway-related, is in the works.

Oregon's first "solar highway," at the junction of I-5 and I-205 in Tualatin, was activated in 2008.

Intel, the semiconductor manufacturer based in California, has three projects — two of 400 kilowatts and one of 100 kilowatts — at its Washington County sites.

The Renewable Northwest Project list says it does not specify all solar projects in the region.

— Peter Wong