When local cities and counties are presented with a new planning issue, such as the proliferation of new solar projects, the first thing the agency director does is asks his staff to call other cities and counties and see how they are dealing with that issue. They talk with other agency staff and they get copies of ordinances and plans. As a former staff person I didn’t care for this process as it circumvented the staffs own creativity and skills. But city council’s like to know that they aren’t walking in new territory alone so borrowing processes from other agencies is the local government method of choice when developing new ordinances.
It isn’t surprising then that we are starting to see consistent trends across California relative to how new solar projects are permitted. Some of these new permitting process can help speed up the approval process but only if the applicant understands how to best prepare their application and how to document their projects benefits and differences.
The major trends are: 1) the perceived loss of agricultural land to solar projects and the payment of fees to compensate the county for these loses; 2) The perception of solar projects being temporary uses and not permanent uses; 3) The use of reclamation plans and the payment of reclamation fees for the future decommissioning of solar sites, and; 4) the use of development agreements (DA) in permitting new sites. By managing these new processes one can often negotiate a faster environmental review process for their project.
Preparing reclamation plans takes special care and experience in both solar project development and reclamation planning as an ill-conceived plan could end up costing a lot of money and affecting the bankability of one’s project. Similarly, development agreements need an awareness of how to write conditions of approval in a way that allows project flexibility while keeping costs to a minimum. Development agreements need the engagement of an experienced solar permitting planner, a good financial modeler, and an experienced lawyer. One cautionary point about development agreements and controversial projects- DA’s are legislative actions and can be subject to initiatives, unlike use permits and other quasi-judicial actions. There are certain options to development agreements that can be discussed with local jurisdictions if you are concerned about project opponents taking ballot action against your project in the future.
Every jurisdiction is still requiring use permits and environmental review of each new project and these new permitting trends are add-ons to the existing permit approval process. The permitting process now requires looking years ahead towards the end of the project development cycle. While many landowners have some permitting experience in their local jurisdiction, these new permitting trends require the consultation of persons who understand solar technology, knows how to permit solar for new construction, knows the costs associated with operating a solar facility, and has a clear idea of how the project can best be terminated and the site used beyond termination.