County commissioners nixes PNM solar facility near Meadow Lake

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Valencia County commissioners voted down a proposed zone change for a 100-acre solar field on the east side 3-2.

The proposed PNM project was going to be located on the south side of Meadow Lake Road, east of Dairy Road in Valencia County Commissioner Alicia Aguilar's district.

Aguilar, who made the motion to deny the zone change, said it was "not the product; it is the zoning."

Under the county's zoning ordinance, solar and other renewables are considered energy production facilities. The only permissible zoning for such a plant is I-3, or heavy industrial.

That same zoning allows for such industry such as slaughter plants, coal-fired power stations and auto salvage yards.

During the Feb. 12 public hearing in front of the county commissioners, county planner Jacobo Martinez said the I-3 zoning was the only designation in the ordinance that technically fit a solar energy facility.

"There is no other technical wording to use for solar. Our new zoning ordinances were done in 2000 and the language talks about some pretty heavy use, such as coal and nuclear," Martinez said. "I don't think anyone realized how extensive solar would be in today's market."

In order to mitigate a possible negative impact of a heavy industrial zone in a community that is predominantly residential and open grazing land, the county planning and zoning commission recommended approval of the zone change with the condition that it only be used for a solar energy facility.

If that use ever ceased, the property would revert back to the OD zoning, the planning and zoning commissioners stipulated.

Aguilar said she viewed the requested change from outland district to I-3 to be "spot zoning." The commissioner said she was also concerned about how close the fence and facility would be to Meadow Lake Road.

"This is only 20 feet from the road and the facility will block visibility," Aguilar said. "This is the only road that community has; if there is an accident or damage to the road, it cuts off access."

And changing the zoning for PNM's solar project could set a bad precedent, Aguilar said, noting it might be hard for the county to turn down future requests for things allowed in a heavy industrial zone, such as gravel pits and salvage yards,

"The comprehensive plan discourages spot zoning. Others will try the same thing," she said. "It's going to be difficult to approve this one, and then come back and say, 'This is solar and clean, and yours isn't.'"

PNM representative Laurie Moye said she couldn't speak to the issue of spot zoning. As far as the obstruction of the view, Moye said the edge of the panels would be seen from the road.

She pointed out that structures in outland district zones could already be built nearly three times taller than the proposed solar panels, leading to a greater chance of blocked visibility.

The company is building projects across the state this year to meet state mandates for renewable energy in PNM's energy portfolio, Moye said, and in 2015, there are no plans to build in Valencia County.

Various members of the Otero family, who own more than 1,000 acres north and slightly west of the proposed development site, spoke against the project.

Priscilla Otero, who along with her husband Ed, said they were concerned the panels would cause glare for drivers and that the project would lower property values in the area.

"When we develop our land, we think this will devalue our land," Priscilla Otero told the planning and zoning commissioners in January.

Their daughters, Elizabeth Otero-Espinosa and Erica Otero, said the facility would change the area, ruining the beautiful landscape and views.

"I always wanted to build a house out there," Erica said. "These are going to be 10-feet tall, make noise and attract thieves."

She continued, saying "Breaking Bad," the award-winning television show about a teacher turned drug kingpin, had filmed scenes on the family's ranch.

"I doubt they would have come out here if it was a solar site," she said. "This will totally change the sense of the land."

Kathy Otero, daughter of Jose Otero, said she was afraid the zone change would lead to the area "turning into a big industrial area. It's more conducive to housing. It's going to be very unsightly and going to effect the value of our land … Some people are going to benefit from this financially … but they are not living or own property right there."

No residents living in the area spoke in favor or against the project; only people owning large parcels of land offered an opinion.

Laura Sanchez was one of only two people who supported the project; the other was an Albuquerque resident who owns property in various areas of Valencia County.

Sanchez said what really excited her about the project was the benefit her school-age children would reap thanks to the increased property taxes.

The property, if developed as a solar facility, would add about $156,000 annually to the county property tax rolls. Those funds would be distributed to local school districts, municipalities and the county.

"This is going to help the community with growth, job opportunities," Sanchez said.

In response to Erica Otero's concern about theft, Moye said PNM has never had a theft at any of its solar sites.

"We do pay attention to copper theft and want to make clear we will do everything we can to prevent it," she said.

Moye said the latest solar site developed by PNM in the county, the Manzano View facility, is immediately adjacent to a residential area, sharing a property line with the houses to its north.

"To my knowledge, we haven't had any complaints out there," she said.

Moye explained PNM has an alternate site for the development if the commission doesn't approve the zoning.

"We do have an alternate site in another county. If Valencia County does not approve (the zone change), we would simply move," she said.

The commissioners denied the zone change on a 3-2 vote, with Aguilar and Commissioners Lawrence Romero and Jhonathan Aragon voting in favor of the denial, and Commissioners Charles Eaton and Mary Andersen voting against.

The quandary of where to put solar energy facilities isn't a new one for the county commission. In 2010, the commission approved a zone change to heavy industrial for a 300-acre solar park about a mile east of the old lake in Meadow Lake.

The planning and zoning commission at that time recommended the zone change with conditions — the site could only be used for solar and if there was no progress on the project in seven years, the property would revert back to OD.

The commissioners also added the caveat that if the county changes its zoning ordinances to create a more suitable zoning, then the property would be rezoned to remove the I-3 designation.

It is on this property that PNM is beginning construction of its third solar facility in Valencia County. The two currently in operation are a facility in Los Lunas in the El Morro Business Park and the Manzano View facility, just off North Rio Del Oro Loop near Valencia High School.

After the zone change in 2010, Martinez presented a draft renewable energy overlay zone ordinance to the county commissioners, but the issue was never considered by the commissioners.


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