County P&Z OKs zone change, plan for solar installation

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A solar project planned on Valencia County's east side got the go-ahead from the planning and zoning commission last month.

The commissioner's unanimous vote was to recommend approval of a zone change of nearly 60 acres from planned development to I-3, heavy industrial.

The PNM project, referred to as the Manzano Solar Energy Center, is calling for the installation of 108,000 solar panels for an 8-megawatt energy generating facility. The county doesn't have a zoning designation for renewable energy sources, only the I-3, heavy industry designation for power generating facilities.

The final approval of the zone change will be made by the county commissioners, a week after this month's Nov. 14 public hearing.

The property is on the northwest corner of North Rio del Oro Loop and Bonita Vista Boulevard. Bonita Vista crosses the north loop, going north into the El Cerro-Monterey Park subdivision and south to Valencia High School.

Currently, there is a mobile home park to the north of the property that will share a fence with the facility, but no other development on the other three sides.

During the P&Z hearing, Commissioner Joan Artiaga asked the PNM representative what the company's plan for traffic control was during construction.

Susan Sponar, with PNM corporate communications, said she has been in contact with Valencia High School and worked out a schedule that will keep the heavy construction trucks off the roads "for the students' benefit as well as ours. We are going to try to mobilize over the Christmas holiday."

Sponar said the company has agreed to keep heavy equipment off the roads between 6:30 and 7:35 a.m., and 2:15 and 3:30 p.m.

Artiaga's other concern was the dust that would be raised during the earthwork for the project. Sponar said they will use water trucks to mitigate most of the dust.

"In the RFP for the project and the contracts with the graders, they are required to have dust control," she said.

Valencia County Planner Jacobo Martinez pointed out that PNM would be the first company to have to comply with a new county ordinance, restricting heavy truck traffic on North Rio Del Oro Loop.

"We have been in contact with PNM. They understand they can't have vehicles that are five tons or more without a permit," Martinez said. "They are going to have to come through the planning and zoning office for a permit, with a plan on how they will move the heavy equipment."

Commissioner Scott Edeal asked how PNM planned to stabilize the dirt, after it had been disturbed by reforming the lot. Edeal also expressed concern about vegetation regrowing in the shade of the panels.

"You're talking about where the sun doesn't shine," Edeal said. "I have a really hard time imagining grass is going to grow back under there."

Sponar said during the dirt work and construction, the company would apply a dirt stabilizer.

"We have a substantial amount of regrowth under our site in Los Lunas," she said. "At the Manzano site, there isn't a lot of weeds. We've had a discussion about moving the top soil aside and doing dirt work, then putting it back to keep what native plants are there."

Juan Aragon, who owns property in the Las Maravillas subdivision, said he was hopeful that the project would provide an opportunity for the nearby high school to use as a learning tool, and said he was in favor of it.

Valley Improvement Association President Paul Baca said his organization represents a large land ownership in that area.

"I'm excited about this project. It's a good project for the east mesa," Baca said. "There is a lot of potential for growth in that area."

James Weldon, a resident of Albuquerque, owns property directly across the street from the proposed site.

Weldon said he supported the project, but had some questions. He asked if the power lines to the site would be overhead or underground.

Sponar said she wasn't sure what kind of lines were in the area, but the transmission lines installed by PNM would match what was already there.

Commission Chairman Jim Lane said it was his understanding that the lines wouldn't be any larger than what normally goes to a home.

Weldon also had concerns about the appearance of the property following construction, possible runoff and fencing.

Sponar said PNM uses a re-vegetation plan of mostly native grasses appropriate for each site it develops. She also told Weldon any runoff would be directed into drainage ponds and retained on PNM's property.

She said the plans also call for a chain link fence topped with three strands of barbed wire, and an easement indicated on the plans would belong to PNM for future expansion.

When Lane asked for anyone in opposition to the project, no one addressed the commission.

Lane said his primary concern was the prevailing winds, from the southwest, carrying dust into the neighborhood adjacent to the facility.

"PNM wants to be a good neighbor," Sponar said, "and it costs us money to go out and keep mitigating problems. Solar is wonderful because it's unmanned — the sun comes up and the power goes out. We want to absolutely take care of the neighbors and the facility."

Lane asked Martinez what had become to the efforts to establish a special designation for renewable energy facilities, instead of putting them in I-3.

Martinez said he presented the commissioners with a draft solar overlay zoning ordinance.

"Was that swept under rug? Forgotten?" Lane asked.

Martinez said he thought the commissioners would be amenable to hearing it again.

Other solar projects have been proposed and approved in the county, "and we always cringe when we talk about putting an I-3 next to a neighborhood," Lane said. "Would you (PNM) be OK with I-3 with the condition that it's a single use as a solar facility?"

Sponar and other PNM representatives indicated that restriction would be acceptable.

Artiaga made a motion to recommend approval of the zone change from PD to I-3, with the restriction that it be for a solar facility only, disallowing all other I-3 uses. Commissioner Mike McCartney seconded the motion.

The commissioners also unanimously approved PNM's site plan for the facility.


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.