Delta County denies DMEA solar farm; Garnet Mesa project fails, 2-1, to win use permit

Ed Fry and Darleen Carron work on installing the community solar garden at DMEA in 2016. DMEA’s plans to, with power wholesaler Guzman Energy, build the Garnet Mesa Solar Project are now in limbo after Delta County denied a use permit on March 2, 2022.

(Montrose Daily Press/file photo)

Citing worries over the potential loss of agricultural land as well as compatibility issues, the Delta County Commissioners delivered a blow to Delta-Montrose Electric Association’s hope to build a 472-acre solar farm on Garnet Mesa.

After hearing from several residents who spoke against the project, Commissioners Mike Lane and Wendell Koontz voted against a limited use permit that had been recommended (with several conditions) by the Delta County Planning Commission and planning staff.

The vote came down during a special meeting Wednesday, March 2. Commissioner Don Suppes was the lone “yea” on the three-person board of commissioners.

The Montrose Daily Press reached out to Koontz for comment but did not immediately hear back on Wednesday.

Suppes said he was disappointed and “apprehensive about the precedent that we’ve set here.”

With its power wholesaler Guzman Energy, DMEA last year announced its intent to build a 80-megawatt solar project. Dubbed the Garnet Mesa Solar Project, it was touted as one that would be able to produce more than 194,000 megawatt hours of electricity annually, enough for 18,000 homes. It was the first local renewable energy project to be developed with Guzman since DMEA switched its power supplier in 2020.

DMEA board member Bill Patterson said the Wednesday vote came as a “kind of a kick in the teeth.” He referred further questions to DMEA’s CEO.

The cooperative and Guzman Energy issued a joint statement Wednesday evening, expressing disappointment.

“When energy is developed locally, it boosts the area’s economy and further improves the resilience of the local power grid,” the statement reads. “Blocking this project denies the county ratepayers an estimated $13 million in tax revenue over 15 years, as well as the opportunity to generate affordable and reliable energy.”

The statement did not indicate what DMEA and Guzman’s next moves, if any, might be.

An announcement from Delta County Citizens Report about the denial states the Delta County Land Use Code allows its planning director’s decisions to be appealed. The code does not offer an appeals process for decisions made by the Delta County Board of County Commissioners.

“In the attempt to save farm ground, we have to be careful that we are not dooming a farmer to maintain an operation that they can’t afford to operate anymore,” Suppes said later Wednesday, referencing the way the “death tax” can affect the farm system and the ability of a farmer’s heirs to continue operations.

“So now rather than allowing somebody to do something outside of ag or add on to their existing ag setup, like solar farms or something else, now we’re saying ‘No, you can’t do that.’ You’ve got to just stick with ag and I’m afraid it’s going to be the wrong approach. And I’m afraid we’re, you know, we’re not setting a good precedent here,” Suppes said.

Delta County commissioners held a public hearing about the permit application on Feb. 16, which they continued until Wednesday after issues over utility lines (electromagnetic frequency as it relates to transmission lines), drainage easements, noise and screening/landscaping (watering) arose.

According to the Delta County Planning and Community Development’s staff report, DMEA on Feb. 23 submitted data about electromagnetic frequency/fields because commissioners were interested in safety associated with transmission lines.

“Although infrastructure for a public utility is not subject to local jurisdictional review, other than to permit utility work within a county right of way, the project and DMEA want to mitigate concerns from the county if possible,” the staff report states.

DMEA provided documentation about EMF associated with the use of electrical power, as well as a question-and-answer document from health professionals.

The documentation, assembled in summary form by the Garnet Mesa Solar project manager and owner’s representative, details studies about EMF and cites lack of evidence for potential health risks.

DMEA and Guzman further provided a drainage agreement between them and the appropriate landowner, plus information from its noise assessment, which found “noise levels fall well below the required thresholds.”

According to Delta County’s announcement, the developer for Guzman Energy said on Wednesday the land would continue being irrigated and a large herd of sheep would be grazed beneath the solar panels.

Suppes later elaborated. “ … they were going to graze sheep underneath. They were going to raise the panels from the standard height. They were going to go ahead and continue to integrate. They’re going to graze sheep. This isn’t row crop row crop agriculture, like sweet corn or green beans and onions or whatever. This is a different type of agriculture, but grazing is an incredibly important part of agriculture in Delta County,” he said.

“The beef industry is our single largest ag industry in the county. And if it weren’t for grazing, we wouldn’t be able to do it. So we can’t discount grazing as an agricultural avenue. What we have to be careful of here is that we’re not getting tied up into the emotions of our neighbors and then more concerned about the ‘not in my backyard’ mentality.”

According to the Delta County Citizens Report, Guzman representative told commissioners the construction phase of the project would have generated more than 350 local jobs, created property tax revenue estimated near $10 million over the next 35 years and helped DMEA with about 20% localized power generation.

“To me, this isn’t necessarily about solar power. This is about multiple uses of land,” Suppes said, further referencing private property rights.

“DMEA paid good money for this property. They paid for it legitimately. They have a right to use that property. They are maintaining ag on there with the grazing,” he said.

“So it’s a tough question. There’s a lot of pros and cons here and there’s a lot of apprehension to change this large, but I’m truly worried that we are just setting a bad precedent with this decision the way it went down today.”

Delta County Independent/Montrose Daily Press Staff Writer Cassie Knust and Montrose Daily Press Assistant Editor/Senior Writer Katharhynn Heidelberg contributed to this report. This ongoing story has been updated. 

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