Moratorium on solar farms in place after some argue panels take away from ag production

PATRICK EVANS - A dark field of dried clover outside Mount Angel will soon be turned into a glittering field of solar panels. Fred Vandecoevering, who lives next door, is worried that solar farms will take over agriculture lands. The top soil in the Willamette Valley isn't just any old dirt. It's special, the rich fertile silt left behind by a series of massive floods around 12,000 years ago at the end of the Pleistocene Epoch and the last Ice Age. Oregon has protected this soil, and farm land throughout the state, in the form of Exclusive Farm Use zoning since 1973. It turns out the fertile land of the Willamette Valley is also a good place for solar farms; the valley's rolling hills get plenty of sun and are close to major highways and infrastructure.

Now a conflict has broken out across the state, and in Marion County, between agriculture farmers and solar farmers over who gets to develop the land. Back in March, the Marion County Board of Commissioners placed a moratorium on new applications for solar farms after opponents of solar farms testified at a public meeting.

The county started taking solar farm applications in 2015 and accepted 32 total before the moratorium went into place, according to Marion County Planning Director Joe Fennimore. More than half of the solar farms are on agricultural land north of Salem.

"All of these are on property on high value soils," Fennimore said.

The board of commissioners created a work group to look at how to rewrite the county's land use regulations to lessen the impact of solar farms on high value soils. The work group has been directed to return to the board with recommendations by Oct. 1.

Farmer Fred Vandecoevering isn't opposed to solar power — he'd gladly put panels on his house — but he is opposed to having a 12-acre solar farm next door. Vandecoevering showed the Independent around his property on Wilco Highway between Woodburn and Mount Angel last week.

Vandecoevering's house sits in a small patch of shade under evergreen trees, surrounded by parched fields rippling in the summer heat. His neighbor has signed a long-term lease with a solar farm, one of the nearly three dozen approved before the county's moratorium in March. The field where the panels will be installed is a stone's throw from his driveway.

"This field will disappear; it will turn into a sheet of glass," Vandecoevering said.

The land Vandecoevering lives on is on top of a gradual hill, almost unnoticeable until you turn and see the valley gently falling away in the hazy distance. It's a portion of the 640-acre Norton land claim which was divided up in 1878.

Vandecoevering pointed out the gentle ripples and undulations of the valley's hills, formations that date back to the Missoula floods which scoured the Willamette Valley 15,000 to 12,000 years ago, leaving behind fertile topsoil.

"This soil cannot be replicated or found elsewhere," Vandecoevering said. "We need these soils to raise crops. It's as valuable as the air we breathe."

Vandecoevering, who grew up on a farm about a mile west of his current home of 30 years, worries that increasing land values will drive out the younger generations of farmers, and that land leased out for solar farms will be lost for agricultural production.

"It doesn't hurt big farmers, the small margins don't affect them. It hurts small farmers," he said.

He also worries about potential conflicts over day-to-day farming operations, like whether solar farms will complain when dust from a neighboring agricultural farm blows onto the panels.

Vandecoevering doesn't find fault with his neighbor for leasing the land for solar, or the solar developers for moving in. He blames the legislature for allowing remittances for solar permits without looking close enough at the potential impacts.

The solar company moving in next door to Vandecoevering is Strata Solar. Strata is based out of North Carolina and has constructed more than 150 projects around the nation. According to Strata developer Garrett Lehman, the design for the 12-acre solar farm would be around 7,200 solar panels, producing 2 megawatts of electricity.

Lehman said that the proximity to agricultural industry didn't pose any particular challenges to the solar farms, and that potential issues like dust blowing onto the panels would be lessened by rain.

"It will reduce efficiency, but not enough to count," Lehman said.

Lehman said that Strata had been open to trying to reduce any negative impacts on their neighbors, and had agreed to move the solar panels farther back from the property line.

"We'll be in business here for 20 to 25 years," he said. "We want to be good stewards and neighbors."

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