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Cle Elum council concerned over solar plant January 27, 2010

The Cle Elum City Council has added its voice to those raising concerns about the potential impact of the Teanaway Solar Reserve (TSR) proposed for a site four miles northeast of Cle Elum.

In a unanimous vote Tuesday night, the council directed Community Development Director Matt Morton to meet with the council’s UGA Committee to draft a letter of concerns about the proposed solar farm and directed Morton to attend a hearing on it before the Kittitas County Board of Adjustment.

The council’s action came in response to a written report from Morton to the council regarding his concerns about the project.

Teanaway Solar Reserve LLC, a partnership of investors, plans to use about 500 acres within a 982-acre project site to construct an array of 400,000 solar panels that, when operational, would have the capacity to generate 75 megawatts of electricity. Proponents of the project, which was announced last summer, initially hoped to begin construction in early spring and aimed to have it operational by 2011.

Developers are seeking a conditional use permit (CUP) from the Kittitas County Board of Adjustment. But the effort to obtain a CUP ran into hurdles in the form of concerns from state agencies and surrounding landowners about the project’s impact on the environment and wildlife. TSR is now working on a mitigation plan.

Tuesday night, Morton told the council he has serious concerns about the project and believes the city needs to be on board as a stakeholder in the discussion.“I have concerns that the Teanaway Solar Reserve proposal is moving toward a final public hearing before the Kittitas County Board of Adjustment and impacts faced by the city of Cle Elum have not/will not be adequately addressed,” he said in a written report.

Among his concerns: an economic impact analysis prepared by CH2M Hill, a consulting firm, in October 2009 for TSR which he believes paints an unduly rosy picture of the project’s economic impact on the county.

The report’s summary predicts that Kittitas County “will benefit from substantial property and sales tax collected during construction and operation.” Morton termed that “a qualified assertion with no basis in fact or experiential relevance to Kittitas County.”

In fact, Morton asserted, “the perceived ‘benefits’ of the project are calculated as a net positive and are not reduced or compared to actual costs of the project born by the county.”

Despite a boon in property tax valuations in the billions of dollars in the past decade and substantial one-time collections in construction sales tax related to Suncadia, wind farms, residential developments and huge infrastructure projects, county and local municipality budgets are worse off now than they were before the supposed “windfall,” he said.

Clearly taking the county to task, he wrote that “this stems from the unwillingness or inability of Kittitas County to understand and properly associate the cost of development impacts and infrastructure requirements to the nexus of development.”

Morton also said that the economic impact analysis prepared for TSR was misleading and not put in proper context when it stated that “county revenues have exceeded expenditures” from 2004 to 2009.

In fact, Morton argued, the required annual maintenance and operations obligations of the county “far exceed revenues” the county takes in. The county’s budget is ballasted by outside sources, he argued, saying it only took a look at the “millions of dollars in grant awards, state and federal pass-through monies and other ‘reimbursements’” the county receives to realize that “the budget is not as rosy as painted by the developer.”

He noted that Kittitas County is still listed as a “distressed county” by the Washington State Department of Commerce and, as such receives tax breaks and incentives.

“Why is the county content to rely in the analysis provided by the developer?” he wrote. “Where is the cost of service analysis for this project to determine public works cost, construction impacts costs, policing costs, fire protection costs and storm water costs?”

Pointing to the county’s current economic situation, he said, “despite millions in ‘one-time’ collections in the past decade the county is gutting (its level of staffing) across the board and telling citizens to expect ‘much lower levels of service.’”

Morton called TSR and CH2M Hill’s assertion that the county is net revenue positive “simply a perversion of our reality. Every bit of experiential evidence we have tells us one-time development revenues and property tax assessments do not pay their fair share of impacts,” he wrote.

Morton said the county should require the developer to fund an independent fiscal analysis of the project to determine the cost of services to the county and that the county should select and manage the consultants preparing the study. The city of Cle Elum, the closest municipality to the project, should be involved and consulted, he said.

The county should require monitoring and mitigation for construction and development-related impacts to county roads, sheriff and fire services, he said. The county should also require a shortfall agreement with the developer to cover costs related to TSR, he said. “On Day One, Cle Elum must be ready to accept increased traffic and service,” he wrote. “This should be a developer expense, not an expense of the general taxpayer nor Cle Elum.”

Impact mitigation should be provided to the city of Cle Elum, he said.

“A trucker cannot fill his tank with diesel in the Teanaway. A construction worker will not eat dinner and sleep on the work site. When these folks start drinking beer in local bars or driving heavy trucks to our service stations, this creates yet another cost to us from, which we will not receive any or very little of the supposed windfall.

That Cle Elum (or other service centers) had not been consulted about the impact of the development on their communities is “shameful and unacceptable,” he said.

Morton said that a development agreement between the county and TSR “is the county’s best tool to mitigate impacts and obtain remuneration and protection.” But the draft development agreement between the two parties favors the developer and lacks the teeth to properly protect the county and its public, he said.

“Yet it appears not a single request (financial or otherwise) is made of the developer in the development agreement,” Morton wrote. Apologizing for what he acknowledged was sarcasm, he suggested the draft development agreement should be renamed “Developers Hall Pass.”

It would be “a colossal tragedy” for the county to accept the development agreement without negotiation to address fiscal, environmental, educational, aesthetic and other concerns, he argued. At a minimum, he wrote, the agreement should be drafted in a way that binds the developer “to the many promises they have made to our schools, university, local municipalities and constituents.”

Morton said while he respects the efforts of the citizens who serve voluntarily as members of the Kittitas County Board of Adjustment, he does not believe they are “technically or legally capable to deal with the complex technical, legal and environmental implications of the project.”

He said the county either needs to provide sufficient legal and educational resources to the Board of Adjustment so that it has the tools it needs to make an informed decision on the project or the county needs to hire a special land use hearings examiner to consider the issue.

MARY SWIFT, Daily Record


One Response to “Cle Elum council concerned over solar plant”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    This Matt Morton guy sounds like a friggin genius! Wish he worked in our community! Way to GO Matt

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