The California Court of Appeal for the Sixth District issued its decision in Save Panoche Valley v. San Benito County, finding that the public interest in developing the Panoche Valley Solar Farm (Project) outweighs the public interest in maintaining the agricultural use of the land on which the Project will be built. The decision is the first published case in California to confirm that a Williamson Act contract can be cancelled to accommodate a solar generating plant, and addresses issues that arise from California’s competing policies to promote renewable energy development and to protect agricultural land.
The court also concluded that the environmental impact report prepared for the Project was adequate, in compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
The Project is a proposed 420 megawatt photovoltaic solar generating facility located on approximately 4,885 acres of land in San Benito County, California. The Project site has historically been used for cattle grazing and was encumbered by Williamson Act contracts, which require that the land be used for agricultural or compatible uses. The Project developers, Solargen Energy, Inc., Solargen Energy DE, PV2 Energy, LLC, PF2 Energy Holdings, LLC, and Nevo Energy, Inc. (collectively Solargen), filed applications with the County for a conditional use permit to develop the Project and to cancel the Williamson Act contracts. Following environmental review under CEQA, the County approved the applications for conditional use permit and for cancellation of the Williamson Act contracts.
Williamson Act contracts generally have a term of 10 years, which automatically renews each year unless the county or the landowner issues a notice of non-renewal. Thus, termination of a Williamson Act contract typically requires waiting for the ten year term to expire. The Williamson Act does, however, provide for cancellation in certain limited circumstances, including if the public interest supports cancellation.
Here, as required by the Williamson Act, San Benito County concluded that the development of a solar generating facility is in the public interest because it furthers the state’s goals of increasing reliance on renewable energy and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions. The County also found that there was not proximate, non-contracted land available and suitable for the Project. The land that Project opponents had suggested was available was located over 60 miles away in two different counties.
The court concluded that there was substantial evidence in the record to support the County’s conclusions for public interest cancellation.
The court also found that the County’s EIR was adequate under CEQA, finding that the County’s conclusion that there were not feasible alternatives was supported by substantial evidence in the record. The court held that the record supports the County’s conclusion that impacts to blunt-nosed leopard lizard will be reduced to less than significant levels and the County did not improperly defer mitigation to protect species. The court also concluded that the EIR adequately addressed impacts to agriculture, holding that the County could conclude that impacts to agriculture were mitigated without requiring creation of new agricultural land to replace the agricultural land that would be converted by the Project.
The decision is important because it provides precedent for cancelling Williamson Act contracts to allow for solar facility development, and provides guidance to counties on the types of evidence and findings that will support such cancellation.