A proposed solar farm on a 90-acre property covered with vernal pools near Eagle Point has raised environmental alarms because the pools are home to endangered fairy shrimp.
Origis Energy, which also proposed a solar farm off Rossanley Drive near Medford that was rejected recently by the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals, wants to build 5,601 solar panels off Highway 234, just west of Highway 62.
The 10-megawatt solar array would feed into the Dodge Bridge substation, next to the Rogue River about a half-mile away.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, in a June 20 letter, urged various government agencies to work together to determine the impacts of the project on the 1-inch-long fairy shrimp, which were listed as an endangered species by the federal government in 1994.
Jackson County determined that 1 percent of the remaining critical habitat for the fairy shrimp is located on the 90-acre property.
Michael Chestone, consultant with Origis Energy USA in Florida, said his company has prepared a 300-page biological assessment that he believes answers most of the concerns about the impacts on the vernal pools, which he said had been damaged by cattle that ran over the property previously.
During the construction phase, the disruption will be kept to a minimum, Chestone said.
"We've mapped all the pools, piers and roads," he said. "It is not as bad as people think during the installation part of it."
After some testing, a corkscrew type of pier has been proposed to help minimize the damage to surrounding areas.
Some of the existing roads will be moved to help restore vernal pools, Chestone said.
"We do care about the habitat, and we're not going out there with no consideration," he said.
He said only one acre of the property would be directly affected by the 5,000 piers and other structures. Even though the solar panels will shade vernal pools, Chestone said the panels move during the day so sunlight still will fall on the pools. Fairy shrimp have a short life span of about 40 days.
Chestone said his company needs to locate a solar farm within a mile and a half of a substation, which limits the areas where these farms can be sited. He also needs a willing property owner with enough land to justify the expense of the installation, which can run in excess of $10 million.
Many of the properties that his company has looked at are high-value farmland.
To help continue the farm use of the Eagle Point property, Chestone said Origis is looking at creating a large apiary on the property with pollinator flowers that would benefit surrounding farms.
As to the denial of the Rossanley solar farm, Chestone said Origis has filed its intention to appeal the LUBA ruling. The Rossanley property is also on high-value farmland.
Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development sent a letter to county officials on Sept. 13 expressing concerns about the Eagle Point project being located on high-value farmland. As a result, the proposal would have to undergo a more rigorous exception process before any approval is granted.
"We question why a solar facility needs to be located in proximity to this particular substation," stated Tim Murphy, farms and forest lands specialist for DLCD.
Origis contacted Jackson County this week canceling an upcoming hearing because the company believes the installation of an apiary located under the panels would mean the facility wouldn't require an exception to Oregon land-use laws. The apiary would conform with the underlying farmland zoning, the company believes.
Sam Friedman, a botanist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, wrote in a June 16 email that he had several concerns about the solar project.
"The proposed action will place 5,601 permanent solar panel modules across the 92-acre vernal pool complex," he stated. "... We cannot completely predict what changes will take place, whether fairy shrimp, large flower woolly meadowfoam and other plants will persist or be lost due to slight changes in hydrology and plant encroachment."
The large flower woolly meadowfoam is also listed as an endangered species.
While testing by Origis indicates piers that support the solar panels will not significantly impact the pools, Friedman said he recommended continued monitoring after the project is built.
Jackson County Development Services also has expressed concern about the project.
"Although applicant has expressed confidence that endangered species impacts resulting from the proposed project would be 'negligible,' there is no evidence, nor independent analysis, to support this conclusion," according to Jackson County Development Services on Aug. 23, 2016.
— Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or email@example.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.